From November 2nd to the 5th of 2017 I was in Seattle, Washington attending the International Comics Art Form conference (ICAF) on the campus of the University of Washington. Despite having been established in 1995, and my having entered academia and working with comics in a scholarly form since about 2007, April of last year was my first time at the conference. This year, however, instead of attending as a presenter, I was there as a representative of the conference’s Executive Committee and helped organize its events. I serve as the committee’s Promotions Coordinator, which mostly means that in addition to the work we all share developing and running the conference, I am responsible for maintaining the ICAF website and its social media presence. I imagine that I was asked to stand for election for that position on the strength of my post here on The Middle Spaces providing an overview of the 2016 conference, and my frequent contributions to comics scholar social media outlets, especially Twitter.
Something that can be disappointing about academic conferences is that you spend the majority of your time indoors, in fluorescent lit rooms, and don’t get to see much of the cities or towns you are visiting. In this case, however, I’d been to Seattle before, and ultimately, none of that mattered. Much like in 2016, the range of presentations, artist talks, and conference events were deeply fascinating and intellectually stimulating, I never felt like I wanted to be anywhere else throughout.
One of my favorite aspects of this conference was the activity on Twitter. Using the #ICAF2017 hashtag, attendees shared insights from each other’s presentations, discussed topics tangential to presentations, and posted pictures of presenters and of their own notes and sketches. Among these, the notes Leah Misemer and Maggie Galvan shared were most notable, colorful and concise. I ended up using them to help remind me of elements of the presentations, and reproduce some of them here (with their permission). You can see all of Leah’s “sketchnotes” on her Twitter feed, and Maggie’s can be found in the notes section of the art page at her website.
And so, what follows is a very rough sketch of an overview of the conferences events, with two caveats:
- I report this overview here not as a representative of the ICAF Executive Committee, but just as an engaged scholar that would have been there even if I had not helped to organize it.
- My representation of individual presentations is severely limited by both my memory and my ability to absorb and comprehend papers being presented under limited circumstances, so I apologize if I misrepresent anything and am happy to make any corrections or updates at the request of presenters.
Day One: Thursday, November 2
We gathered at 9 AM in the main room to hear the ICAF Chair, José Alaniz’s welcome address to kick off the event. José has been ICAF chair since 2011 and he announced that he is stepping down after this year (having served as site liaison as well for this time around), though he plans to continue to participate, just not in the capacity of helping to organize the event. Charles Hatfield, who is the acting president of the Comics Study Society also briefly addressed the room.
CSS was born at an ICAF conference, but this year marked the end of the collaboration between the comics studies professional organization and ICAF (CSS will be holding their own conference from now on—the first one being in August). Hatfield’s comments acknowledged the role ICAF had in making the establishment and growth of CSS possible, and I imagine that, comics studies being as small a field as it is, there will continue to be a lot of overlap between the two organizations and conferences.
After this, I had the honor of introducing ICAF2017’s keynote speaker, Ramzi Fawaz. Those who follow this blog probably already know how much I respect his work, and I have put it to use (especially his book The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics) in nearly everything I have written about comics since I first read it. Below is an excerpt from my introduction:
…I find Ramzi’s openness and generosity of spirit in eschewing the obvious political limits common to cultural critique, and exploring the cosmic potentiality of superhero comics more than refreshing. By contextualizing close readings of comic books through examination of fan letters, political documents, and the history of the continuing Postwar struggle for Civil Rights, and the gay liberation and women’s movements, he forces us to consider how these comics model a queer politics that challenges and sustains our traditions. Ramzi’s work has forced me to reconsider my own approach to the literary and cultural examination of such comic books.
Ramzi’s talk—“Legions of Superheroes: Multiplicity, Diversity, and Collective Action Against Genocide in the Superhero Comic Book”—was as amazing as I expected. He presented a deep dive into DC Comics’ 2000-01 Legion Lost maxi-series by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, with art by Olivier Coipel. Ramzi used the series as an example to consider comics when they are at their most multiplicitous, and how as a result collectivity is imperative in building connections across difference. The talk was too erudite, ranging, and sharp to give it justice here, but as usual Ramzi was provocative and brilliant. His focus on heterogeneity as opposed to the tokenism common to representations of diversity, forces us to think about the limits of the discourse of diversity, and how comics are positioned to be the best way to articulate the reality of radical difference and utopian possibility.
Of course, Ramzi’s vision for superhero comics did not go uncontested. When asked about a panel he used that features a close up of the emblem on Saturn Girl’s chest, making the focus her ample superheroine boobs, and chopping off her head in the procress, he was not interested in spending time discussing it. Essentially, he explained that patriarchy is a given in the genre, and that he doesn’t see the benefit of reducing the entire genre to one problematic schema. In other words, we already know comics can be sexist, so why should we let this fact limit what else is made available by superhero stories?
I could sense Ramzi’s frustration with the common re-treading of the same ground in cultural studies and media studies, but I can also see the importance of the performativity of clearly framing these sexist images through careful acknowledgement as a way to temporarily put them aside for the sake of other positionalities. Intersectionality doesn’t mean we reject everything that does not fit the political ideals of all the intersecting identities. It is being aware of multiple axis of meaning and consequences.
After the keynote, it was time for the first set of academic panels. Clearly, I could not attend both at the same time, and since I was moderating one of the panels (first time I ever did that!), choosing was easy.
1A. Superheroes without Borders
Moderator: Osvaldo Oyola, New York University
- “The Prescriptive Futurity of the Hindu Past in the Ramayan 3392 AD Trilogy.” Anuja Madan, Kansas State University
- “‘My Spanish is way better when I’m pissed off!’: Tensions between Puerto Rican and American identities in La Borinqueña and America.” Nicole Pizarro, Ohio State University
There was supposed to be a third paper, “Muslimah Superheroes in The 99,” by Sarah Abdul Razak from Georgetown University, but she was unable to attend at the last minute, which was unfortunate. Still, we heard two great papers, and there was a lively discussion afterwards.
Dr. Madan’s presentation illuminated the Hindu nationalist project embedded in the Ramayan 3392 AD Trilogy and how it uses visions of a future to undergird regressive and prescriptive ideas about Indian national identity. The future of over a thousand years from now that it depicts, recapitulates an imperialist framework for defining cultural success through re-constructing a mythic past in a sci-fi space. Her presentation made me think of the current conflicts in American science fiction circles, between a vision of a reactionary “hard” science fiction that posits a world built on retrograde values of exploration, conquering and commodification, and a more radical view of the future that imagines, if not utopian possibilities, then at least keeps in mind the productive differences of a vast future.
When I introduced Nicole Pizarro, I had to hold back from yelling out “¡WEPA!” when I read her bio, because I feel a great love for my fellow Puerto Ricans, especially when they are making their way through graduate school and have career aims in academia. I know how hard it can be. Nicole’s presentation took a look at Puerto Rican identity in two superhero figures, and examined how their stories and positions provide ways to think about the relationship between diaspora and homeland, and how the comics work to mend that gap. My favorite part of this presentation was when she said, “There is no right way to diaspora.” I love the notion of “diaspora” as a verb. While I gave up on America by Gabby Rivera by the third issue or so, Nicole’s presentation made me anxious to try La Borinqueña.
Back in the main room (where the keynote and other central events had occurred), the concurrent panel was taking place.
1B. Comics off the Page
Moderator: Brannon Costello, Louisiana State University
- “A History that Erases Itself: Comics Scanners and the Discourse on Piracy.” Kalervo Sinervo, Concordia University
- “From the General to the Grave: Activism as Monument in Joe Sacco’s The Great War.” Zachary Abram, McGill Writing Center
- “Visual Rhetoric as Performance: Shakespeare in Comics.” Anelise Farris, Idaho State University
I was particularly sad to miss Kalervo Sinervo’s presentation, because the world of comics piracy is one that is so foreign to me, especially since I tend to not like digital versions of print comics (I do like webcomics, which strike me as a lot easier to read since they are designed with digital spaces in mind), so even if I was okay with pirating them, the format would make it a worthless violation.
After these panels was a lunch break, with food supplied for all attendees (sponsored by the CSS Grad Student Caucus). This was a great time for schmoozing and networking and catching up with friends. It also allowed me some time to talk with Alejandro Jimenez, who had recently moved to Seattle, and I had never met in person before. He’s the author of the award-winning 2016 guest post on The Middle Spaces, “Miles from Representation: On Needing More from Bendis’s Spider-Man,” and while not from the world of humanities scholarship, I am doing my best to bring him into the cultural/comics studies fold.
In the afternoon, the academic panels continued.
2A. Comics’ Queer Contexts
Moderator: Qiana Whitted, University of South Carolina
- “Diverse Anthologies: The Future of Comics is International and Queer.” Jeremy Stoll, Columbus College of Art and Design
- “Servants to What Cause: Illustrating Queer Movement Culture through Grassroots Periodicals.” Margaret Galvan, University of Florida
- “‘Only the Insider Would Know’: The Representation and Legibility of Mainstream Comics’ First Lesbian Character.” Joshua Zirl, Ohio State University
All three papers were fascinating. Jeremy Stoll presented on a queer comics anthology funded through Kickstarter in India, and discussed the range of expressions of that experience, but also the limits and problems with trying to publish them both in terms of economic constraints and in the context of the extreme homophobia and strident sexual mores common to the communities where these comics makers live. Maggie Galvan amazed us with her archival work regarding Alison Bechdel’s work with local gay periodicals across the country, and connecting her comics to a history of queer production that is obscured by its scattered grassroots contexts. Josh Zirl illuminated the story of comics’ first lesbian character, Sanjack from Terry and the Pirates. He examined reader response to the character, which led him to claim that the character, despite her villainous depiction, provided readers with transgressive opportunities for representation and identification offered through the character’s illegibility as “lesbian” to those not already open to the idea of same-sex love. It was great work all around.
The other panel at that time was:
2B. Abstraction, Fragmentation, and Transformation
Moderator: Frank Bramlett
- “Both/and: Fragmentation and Realism in Modern Danish Comics.” Felix Paulsen, Aarhaus University (Denmark)
- “‘Wrong on the Internet’: xkcd and the Comics Panel.” C.W. (Toph) Marshall, University of British Columbia
I was obviously unable to attend, but I could see a lively discussion of the panel on Twitter, especially about Marshall’s paper, given the many questions of comics form that arise from the way xkcd plays with the webcomic format.
At three o’clock, Colin Beineke, who I met at last year’s ICAF, gave the John A. Lent Award lecture. From the ICAF website, “The Lent Scholarship, named for pioneering teacher and researcher Dr. John A. Lent, is offered to encourage student research into comic art. ICAF awards the Lent Scholarship to a current student who has authored, or is in the process of authoring, a substantial research-based writing project about comics.”
This year’s talk was entitled, “(Re)covering Mouly’s Materiality,” and discussed the possibilities of editor-as-auteur through the figure of Françoise Mouly, and in context of how her great work in comics too often exists in the shadow of her more famous husband, Art Spiegelman, and the other artists she shepherded along and helped to shape as co-founder of RAW. As Beineke rightly pointed out, even the punning title of Jeet Heer’s monograph on Mouly—In Love With Art—suggests her work only has meaning in relation to a man. Ultimately, Beineke argues that paying attention to house style as the result of an editorial artistic endeavor can reframe and recognize women in the industry. Furthermore, he suggested that comics studies needs to pay more attention to the modes of comics printing as to uncover the details of that influence.
After a short break, there was a Pedagogy Roundtable featuring Professor Nick Sousanis of San Francisco State University sponsored by the Comics Studies Society. You may have heard of Sousanis because he wrote/drew his dissertation in comics form. It garnered quite a lot of press (lord knows, everyone and their brother sent me a link to a story about it) and if you have seen it in book form as Unflattening, you understand how brilliant the work really is. The roundtable took the form of a presentation by Sousanis about using comics to teach, followed up with responses by a panel made up of Qiana Whitted, Frank Bramlett, and Brittany Tullis.
One of Nick’s central claims is that comics make you smarter, and I can’t say I disagree. His presentation mostly consisted of various examples of comics work created by his students. The idea being that making comics is a way of thinking, that they challenge how we read and process information. It was the kind of talk that left my brain on fire with ideas about things to try in the classroom. I use a lot of word play exercises in my writing classes, but I want to try some of these visual drawing exercises that get students thinking about problems in new ways.
I made sure to buy Nick’s book and had him sign it on the last day of the conference.
Dinner was a group of us, including Aaron Kashtan, Leah Misemer, and Joshua Plencner, hitting up a Korean restaurant, where I had spicy squid bibimbap.
The final event of the first night (what a long day, and they’d all end up being long—in a good way) was a talk with legendary shōjo manga artist and writer, Moto Hagio at the Henry Art Gallery on the edge of the University of Washington campus. I don’t know much about manga, and had honestly never heard of Moto Hagio before the ICAF board began discussing the possibility of inviting her as a guest, but I soon realized whenever her name came up that she was a big deal, and the turnout at the gallery event reinforced that. In addition to the attendees from ICAF, the place was packed with a great number of people from Seattle’s Japanese community, and in the Q&A at the end, several questions were asked in Japanese. As with most of these kinds of events at ICAF, they leave me eager to sample the artist’s work. I can’t wait to get my hands on Thomas no Shinzō (or “Heart of Thomas”), which looked beautiful, and was a clear favorite, both for Hagio and her fans.
Day Two: Friday, November 3
Day Two began with concurrent academic panels. I went to Session 3A, but session 3B was as follows:
3B. New Perspectives on Asian Comics
Moderator: John Lent
- “A Forgotten Master from China: Zhang Guangyu and His Comic Decoration Aesthetics.” Hongyan Sun, Communication University of China
- “Plasmatic Iconicity: Indexing the Self in 1950s East Asian Comics.” Evelyn Shih, University of California, Berkeley
- “Resistance by Design: Kim Songwhan’s ‘Mr. Kobau’ and the Rise of the Editorial Cartoonists in South Korea.” Emily Marie Anderson Hall, University of Washington
3A. Comics’ Visionary Forms
Moderator: Josh Kopin
- “Giizhodibaa’iganeg: Indigenous Land/Water Lifeways in Comics Form.” Jeremy Carnes, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
- “Post-Rapture Visionaries: Anarcho-Surrealist Ethics in Munro and Sam’s Therefore Repent!” Mike Borkent, University of Calgary
- “An Anatomy of Facelessness: Halfdan Pisket’s Dansker Trilogy.” Øyvind Vågnes, University of Bergen (Norway)
My friend, Jeremy Carnes, presented a paper on Moonshot, a kickstarted Native comics anthology. He explored how the comic form was put to use in many of its stories to convey the connection between land/water, humans and non-humans as embodied in deep time and what he calls “vast place,” without centering white European modes of imagining the cosmos. I was fascinated by the concept and its usefulness in considering a sense of place unfettered by cartography’s politics. Mike Borkent presented on a comic I had never heard of, but that sounded really wild. According to Borkent, Therefore Repent! uses anarcho-surrealist ethics to undercut old models of understanding and organizing the world. The last presentation made me very interested in finding an English translation of the Dansker Trilogy, and made me think about faces as sites for both meaning and also a certain degree of unknowability between people, an inexpressive interiority, we can never really understand.
And then came the panel everyone would be talking about for the rest of the conference.
4A. What Are We Reading, and How?
Moderator: Andréa Gilroy
- “What Weren’t Comics? Issues in the Empirical Study of the American Comic Book.” Bart Beaty, University of Calgary
- “What Is Comics Theory For?” Benjamin Woo, Carleton University
- “Who’s Your Mama? The Comics Canon and the Missing Matrilineage.” Alisia Chase, State University of New York, Brockport
I am not even sure of the best way to cover this event. Bart Beatty (of Twelve-Cent Archie and Comics Versus Art fame, among many other books and articles) began with an overview of the work he’d been doing with the help of post-docs and grad students and a generous grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The idea is to take a sample of 2% of all comics published between 1934 and 2014 in order to develop an understanding of the evolution of stylistics at any given era in those 81 years, by coding their formal elements. The idea is to construct a history of comics based on a sense of the “typical” rather than the exceptional. The presentation was fascinating, but a little frustrating. The project seemed to eliminate some comics from this history rather arbitrarily. Beatty uses the Overstreet Guide (which is notoriously prone to ignore the vast majority of underground comics) and the Grand Comic Book Database (which is put together by fan and scholar volunteers—kind of like Wikipedia for comics). It is a fantastic and fascinating project, but I worry (and I think some others in the audience, and I hope Beatty and his helpers also worry) that it will unintentionally recapitulate some of the problems with legitimacy and erasure in comics through the choice of sources. Still, he’s right overall; comics studies will benefit from expanding our research methodology.
Benjamin Woo presented on a related matter to this project. “What is Comics Theory For?” suggesting that comics scholars need to be more explicit about what they are using it for and how they are using it. The example he used was the evaluation of formal elements like a comics page layout, and how the major taxonomic/descriptive approaches vary so widely. But it was the final presentation that caused some serious consternation among the audience, and the eventual contentious exchange during the question and answer period.
Alisia Chase’s presentation was one that covered an important gap in comic studies and comics history more specifically, the acknowledgement of women in the world of comics, and imagining a matrilineage of women cartoonists, writers, and editors influencing each other down the line, as is often done with men and their work. She suggested that comics studies lack of an ossified canon, as in literary studies, is an opportunity to not recapitulate the mistakes of other fields. She also suggested, coming from an art history background, that the facts of unequal representation of women in the art world revealed by the Guerrilla Girls back in the 1980s have mostly gone unchanged, and comics should not fall in line with that travesty, even if we’re already shaping up to be that way. As she noted, only 3 out of 21 essays in Critical Approaches to Comics were written by women.
All of this makes perfect sense. What made less sense was the first of the three caveats she gave before starting the paper.
I am going to be honest and admit I don’t remember what the other two caveats were, because after the first one I was a little shocked and could feel the energy in the room changing. Essentially, Chase stated that we must acknowledge the biological differences between men’s and women’s bodies in order to consider the differences in experience those bodies engender. She then went on to say that only women menstruate or have babies, which I think turned most of those in the audience against her. She stated that she wanted to avoid the semantics of defining womanhood, but when you are talking in front of academics, the particularities of language are going to matter to them. So, ironically, her caveat did the exact opposite. For my own part, I immediately thought, “That is wrong. I know men who menstruate, and women who don’t and never have.” It was even the subject of a side-discussion on Twitter. It felt so bizarre, because that caveat seemed completely superfluous to her presentation.
As soon as her presentation was done, Ramzi Fawaz had his hand in the air to ask a question, and when called on by the moderator, prefaced his own comments with “I’m going to be combative here…” From there things get hazy again, but despite the extreme discomfort that followed, I did appreciate that people felt so passionately about what’s at stake in comics studies and about being inclusive in intersectional ways. After challenging Chase’s strange choice to foreground her talk with what sounded to most of us like reductive gender binary essentialism, (despite, I think, that not being her intent), Ramzi impugned most comics scholarship and expressed his skepticism of the Calgary School of Comics Studies project, characterizing it as a universal theory of comics, and saying he was wary of any system divorced from cultural and political consideration—“I am much more interested in what comics do in the world, than an inward-turning myopia of comics studies.” This makes sense to me, because as much as I have a love of numbers and data, ultimately, I am less concerned with that aesthetic formalism as others in my field are. That said, I also think calling what Beatty and Woo described “a universal theory of comics” is a mischaracterization. It is an effort to use data to rethink the way we periodize comics and describe their typicality in association to time. This is something that could be really helpful in developing an agreed upon nomenclature for comics scholars. However, as I suggested above, my concern is the way that that very data is collected and organized could reinforce some problematic ways in which art and letters have been canonized, so an awareness of difference and power is crucial. As an example, as one attendee pointed out, the very dynamics of the contentious discussion were very gendered in the way that more men than women were speaking.
I do want to add one final note about this panel. In the middle of the hub-bub and heated back and forth I got a text from my elderly uncle. All it said was “There has been an emergency. Please help.” Needless to say, I freaked the fuck out, and had a good two minutes of paralyzing panic as I imagined a series of increasingly terrible scenarios about my family. I imagined myself having to leave early and find a flight back to New York immediately. I imagined my wife having to navigate my family without me in the course of some kind of terrible event. I half stood, and then I sat back down. I wasn’t sure the best course of action, aside from texting him back. And then I got a text from my wife, telling me to ignore the text. She had gotten it, too. My uncle had installed some kind of panic button app on his phone that automatically reaches out to all your emergency contents and it had “accidentally gone off.” I went from freaking scared to really annoyed in a microsecond. Anyway, I only add that anecdote to hopefully excuse any inaccuracies or lack of nuance in my characterization of any of the post-presentation discussion. It is not my intention to gossip about these events, but to consider them as important topics that arise in the context of scholars, and because I have limited experience with being present for this kind of contention at conferences, even though I have heard of plenty of examples secondhand.
The panel was so absorbing and took over most talk for the rest of the day and evening, that I never even got to hear much about the concurrent session. I was especially curious about the second paper.
4B. Seeing and Being Seen: The Gaze of Comics
Moderator: Qiana Whitted
- “‘A Grotesque, Incurable Disease’: Whiteness as Illness in Gabby Schulz’s Sick.” Frederik Byrn Køhlert, University of East Anglia
- “Eyes of Conscience, Eyes of Consciousness: Steve Ditko’s Incredible Hulk versus the Shōjo Manga of Ariyoshi Kyōko’s SWAN.” Jon Holt, Portland State University
- “The Game of Gaze: The Importance of Looking in Autobiographical Comics.” Cynthia Laborde, University of Texas, Arlington
For lunch, Paul Morton, who’d be presenting in the final panel of the event, and is a PhD student in UW’s film studies department, brought me, Joshua Plencner, and Frank Bramlett to a great Lebanese joint called Cedar’s. The proprietors were super friendly, unlike the experiences I was having with a lot of Seattleite service workers in my time there. On the way back, it snowed heavy flakes. I did not bring a warm enough coat with me on this trip.
After lunch (during which was the CSS Graduate Caucus meeting), it was time for one of my favorite panels of the whole event. It was actually difficult to choose between the two concurrent panels, because while panel 5A seemed more in line with my direct scholarly work with comics, panel 5B’s subject was one I have a lot of personal interest in.
5B. Witnessing and Testifying in Latin American Comics
Moderator: Brittany Tullis
- “To Tell the Tale: Argentine and South American Comics as Documents, Weapons, and Tools.” Pablo Turnes, Universidad de Buenos Aires/CONICET
- “Reading Between the Lines: Drawing on the Horrors of Disappearance in ‘Un Asesino anda suelto.’” Janis Breckenridge, Whitman College
- “History and the Self: Testimonial and Autobiographical Perspectives in Cuban-American Graphic Novels: Cuba, My Revolution by Inverna Lockpez and Sexile by Jaime Cortez.” Tania Pérez-Cano, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth
I am considering teaching Sexile in my Latino-American Literature and Representation class this spring.
Anyway, panel 5A:
Rethinking Comics History
Moderator: Brannon Costello
- “Dell Comics and the Comics Code: The Case of The 87th Precinct.” Andrew Kunka, University of South Carolina – Sumter
- “‘#1 in a 4-Issue Limited Series’: Marvel Goes Mini.” Blair Davis, DePaul University
- “‘Those Aren’t Really Comics’: Raina Telgemeier and the Limitations of Direct-Market Centrism.” Aaron Kashtan, University of North Carolina – Charlotte
Andrew Kunka’s presentation was a fascinating look at the more-complex-than-usually-imagined relationship between comics and industry codes. He did this by looking at some of Dell’s TV-based licensed comics, like The 87th Precinct, that belie Dell Comics reputation for wholesome fare like Disney and Looney Toons comics. The one comic he used as an example was basically a primer for buying and using heroin! Blair Davis’s examination of Marvel’s limited series in the Shooter era was right up my alley! And best of all, he drew all his own slides. While Davis’s main point is that these series serve as evidence of comics history of having multiple co-existing formats and thus a sign of the medium’s malleability, what really stood out to me was his simultaneous claim of the quarter bin (these days more likely to be the 50 cents or dollar bin) as a great source, and even a methodology, for finding forgotten or maligned comics that are worthy of scholarly attention. Finally, Aaron Kashtan (who I recently interviewed) tackled the premature claims that the comics industry is dying by taking a close look at what the internet hivemind means when they say this (they really mean just the Big Two: DC and Marvel), and at various examples of the explosion of kids and all-ages comics that are doing very well (but are rarely considered “real” comics by the hardcore superhero aficionados—or even by some hardcore fans of indie and alternative comics). He also put this in context of the reactionary discourse regarding so-called “SJWs” ruining comics.
At 3 PM, I moved back to the main room to attend:
6B. Historicizing Women’s Representation in Comics
Moderator: Brittany Tullis, St. Ambrose University
- “Splitting the Difference: Crafting a Genealogy of Feminist Media Through Comics.” Leah Misemer, Georgia Institute of Technology
- “Eisner’s Cheesecake Feminist: Early Connie Rodd as Exemplar and Cautionary Tale.” Robert Watkins, Idaho State University
- “Proletarian Girls: A Shōjo Take on The Crab Cannery Boat.” Benjamin Burton, Portland State University
Meanwhile, across the hall:
6A. The Global and the Local
Moderator: Frank Bramlett
- “On Being Stuck: Dwelling in the Impasse in Wilfred Santiago’s In My Darkest Hour.” William Orchard, Queens College
- “Dwelling and Dislodging in Paco Roca’s La Casa.” Kathy Korcheck, Central College
- “G.B. Tran’s Vietnamerica: Blending America and Vietnam by Unintentionally Discovering Eastern Philosophy” Clifford Marks, University of Wyoming
It struck me as ironic that the panel on historicizing women’s representation in comics was two-thirds men, and only one of the presentations was on comics by women. Leah Misemer (who you may remember from the third installment of the (re)Collection Agency) was drawing connections between Wimmen’s Comix and the French women’s comics anthology Ah! Nana. Robert Watkins considered the feminist possibilities in Will Eisner’s Connie Rodd in his instructional comics for the U.S. Army. Even though the character was a fairly typical buxom cheesecake comic character meant to draw the gaze of men to the important tasks she instructed them in performing, part of his claim was that she was the one who had the knowledge and authority. I’m not sure I buy it. Benjamin Burton took a look at one version of a popular manga about a communist worker strike on a fishing boat, wherein a sex worker overcomes what is essentially her kidnapping and precarious position on a boat full of men to lead a worker’s revolt. I was a little confused, however, because even though part of his reading was that the protagonist learned to use her sexuality to manipulate the men she could not convince through reasoned or ethical appeals, I felt like her early story made her less of a sex worker with agency, and more of a trafficked woman put into this position against her will. Maybe her ability to put the situation to work in her benefit is part of the point, but I thought that aspect of the story needed more elaboration.
Shortly after this panel, comics documentarian Jesús Cossio from Peru gave his artist’s talk. Cossio is best known for his comic documentation of atrocities committed by both the Peruvian military and the Maoist group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). During his presentation, he talked us through many of the events he has documented in his comics and also the obstacles to keeping this history fresh. There are large numbers of people in Peru who prefer to “move on,” and many young urban people who don’t want to identify with campesinos who were massacred because of the stigma that still exists around being poor rural and/or indigenous people. One of Cossio’s goals is to put the people who claim they want to “move on” in dialog with survivors and their lasting pain, especially those people that 20 years on still have family members unaccounted for, as mass graves are still being uncovered. His methodology involves talking to survivors, essentially giving voice to the voiceless, as a counter-narrative that seeks to justify the military’s atrocities as the necessities of war, or the result of “just following orders.” One of the comments he made during the question and answer period that really struck me was that he has mostly been able to avoid any controversial response to his comics, because they exist below the “cultural radar,” so in some ways the lack of cultural legitimacy lets him get away with depicting the brutal events of what they call the “Internal Conflict.” The next day, I was able to purchase and have him sign a copy of his book Barbarie—Cómics sobre la violencia política 1985–1990 at the Short Run Comix and Arts Festival, and then hear him be interviewed in conversation with Joe Sacco.
During the dinner break that followed, ICAF provided a chartered bus that took us to Georgetown (a Seattle neighborhood) to visit the Fantagraphic Bookstore. We mingled there, and I tried to fill some gaps in my collection of original issues of Love and Rockets, but they didn’t have any of the ones I was missing. There was then time to eat before the next event, a talk moderated by Charles Hatfield that included Gary Groth (co-founder of Fantagraphics and editor-in-chief of the infamous Comics Journal), Jim Woodring (famous in the comics world for his Frank books), and Emile Ferris (author of the best book I’ve read in years, My Favorite Thing is Monsters). Woodring was soft spoken, but insightful about his own work, though he rejected the presence of a pop culture influence in his work, saying “If you eat a bunch of steak, then beat somebody up, the steak didn’t beat him up.” Ferris was as roving and wild and free-associative in her comments and responses as she can be in her work, but simultaneously, like her work, you can tell there is a careful framework to her vision that is brilliant, and refuses to be penned in. Groth probably spoke the least during the event. The only things I can remember him saying (though I am sure he said more) was that he was introduced to Woodring by Gil Kane, and that he offered to publish him based on the few drawings he had with him. Ferris’s book, on the other hand, was agented to him. Oh, and he referred to commercial comics artists who do work for hire stuff as “hacks,” because I guess he has a curmudgeonly reputation to uphold.
Afterwards, we mingled and drank beer as we waited for the bus to bring us back to the hotel. These days were long, but fantastic, with the kinds of interactions that leave your mind crackling with energy, even as your limbs grow numb from exhaustion and jetlag. There was one more day to go!
Day Three: Saturday, November 4
You ever have that experience where you see a recognizable celebrity, but for a second you forget that even though you know who they are they have no idea who you are? Well, that happened to me. I was sitting in the hotel café with the other members of the ICAF Executive Committee early in the morning of the final day of the conference when Kelly Sue DeConnick walked in. I gave her a big smile when I saw her, and I am not sure she noticed, but if she did, I am sure I came off as a creep. Not too long after that when I saw her at the conference waiting for the first panel—7A. The Comics of Kelly Sue DeConnick—and talking to Qiana Whitted, and just hoped she didn’t connect me with that awkward moment. I walked over and introduced myself, and she was gracious and kind, and seemed genuinely happy to have scholars respond to her work with rigor, candor, and seriousness. I talked to her about how I wanted to write about a story her husband Matt Fraction contributed to the anthology comic Bitch Planet: Triple Feature, and she told me a little about how the story came together. Lovely person.
That first panel—sponsored by the Comics Studies Society—was a great one. Moderated by Susan Kirtley it featured two papers on Bitch Planet and one on Pretty Deadly.
- “#BlackGirlMagic, Body-Positive Narratives, and the Non-Compliance of Bitch Planet.” Nick Miller, Hollins University
- “The AmBIGuous Penny Rolle from Bitch Planet.” Meshell Sturgis, University of Washington
- “Genre Beauty: Pretty Deadly’s Metaphysical Historicism.” Daniel Worden, Rochester Institute of Technology
I am sure the presenters must have felt a little bit of anxiety presenting on DeConnick’s comics with her sitting in the room, and one even expressed as much, but her attitude was open and welcoming as could be, and—as is probably wisest for a writer in that situation—she just listened. Nick Miller discussed his experiences teaching Bitch Planet and the favorable response to it and its messages of body positivity—in particular the character of Penny Rolle—by his black female students. He explained the importance of adopting a Fat Studies pedagogy that is intersectional, because comics is a visual medium that can too easily depict bodies in ways that sexualize and/or marginalize them in relation to the white male gaze. Meschell Sturgis also spent much of her presentation discussing the character of Penny Rolle from Bitch Planet (Penny does seem to be the breakout star of that book), but considered how the character’s ambiguity causes her specific representation to bear the burden of those identifications that erase her particularities of race, class, and gender. In other words, Sturgis both highlights the opportunities to read ourselves as Penny, who stands in for multiple forms of Otherness, but if I understood her presentation correctly, she always wants to make clear the limits of such identification. Penny’s story may be one of self-love overcoming personal oppression, but this does not allow her to transcend structural oppression regarding her multiple identities. The final paper of the panel was on a comic that I tried, but gave up on—Pretty Deadly—but like the best of ICAF presentations, it made me reconsider it, and I plan to re-read the first trade when I get a chance. Daniel Worden’s presentation reminded me of how hauntingly gorgeous Emma Rios’s art is in Pretty Deadly, and did a good job of describing how the book envisions a world where working in harmony defeats violence and blurs boundaries. He also briefly brought DeConnick’s work on Marvel’s Captain Marvel into the discussion, considering how she re-envisioned Carol Danver’s superheroic origins (something I wrote about in my 2014 post, “‘Let’s Rewrite Some History:’ Captain Marvel & Feminist Revisionism”).
Meanwhile, across the hall, a concurrent panel was taking place, which I was sad to miss.
7B. History, Ephemerality, and Memory
Moderator: Frank Bramlett
- “Comics’ Ephemerality as Queer Enterprise in Chris Ware’s Building Stories.” Maite Urcaregui, University of California, Santa Barbara
- “The Anachronistic Aesthetic: Seth and the Contemporary Forms of the Past.” Matthew Levay, Idaho State University
- “History Returns: Comics Designed for the Classroom.” Rachel Kunert-Graf, University of Washington
The final academic panels of the conference began at 10:15 am, and I wish I could have cloned myself to be at both.
In the main room, there was:
Session 8B. Comics and the Culture Wars
Moderator: José Alaniz
- “Herblock, the Culture Wars, and the Collapse of Postwar Liberalism.” Simon Appleford, Creighton University
- “Inventing the Lonely Machine: Jules Feiffer and Hugh Hefner’s Collaboration in the Pages of Playboy.” Paul Morton, University of Washington
- “Sylvia, Satire, and the Culture Wars: The Strip that Challenged the Status Quo.” Susan Kirtley, Portland State University
But I went to…
- “The Color of Future Pasts: Polychromatic Resistance in Bitch Planet and Nighthawk.” Joshua Plencner, Union College
- “Parents, Counterpublics, and Sexual Identity in Young Avengers.” Keith Friedlander, Olds College
…particularly because I was eager to hear Joshua Plencner’s talk, and I wasn’t disappointed. More than anything Plencner’s talk was a call to action for comics scholars to theorize color more, hell, at all. As he said, even black and white comics are named for two colors! And, since he is putting this notion to work in considering how race is represented, it speaks to my own area of interest with that much more weight. As he said, “Formal inattention to color is linked to white supremacy in comics studies,” and that we need to think of a “polychromatic resistance” to that invisibility of color. (You may remember Josh’s guest post on Logan and Ultimate Wolverine). Keith Friedlander’s presentation was also inspiring, though in a much more specific way, in that his look at the young world of Young Avengers as a counterpublic, got me thinking about my own desire to write about Gillen and McKelvie’s run on Young Avengers in relation to the complexities of adolescent maturity.
And so, the official ICAF events came to an end. After the final panels, we all gathered in the main room again for ICAF President José Alaniz’s closing remarks, along with some remarks by Charles Hatfield of the CSS about the end of the two organizations’ collaboration. In addition, the announcement was made regarding ICAF’s next location, at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa.
And yet, the events were still not quite over. After the panels at the University of Washington were complete, the focus switched over to the Short Run Comix and Arts Festival in Seattle Center. There were over 100 tables of artists and indie comics people selling mini-comics, buttons, posters, prints, t-shirts, and a ton of other stuff at the Fisher Pavilion. But more than anything, comix of all shapes and styles. Cartoonists from all over were there selling their work, but Short Run is a Seattle institution, that is crucial to their scene. I bought a handful of weird things: a mini-comic about the many ways to prepare potatoes, a comic on ghosts and monsters playing baseball, another mini-comic that simply told the story of someone’s first tattoo, and a sticker featuring anarchist Peanuts that now adorns my laptop.
At the ICAF table, I was also able to get Nick Sousanis to sign my copy of Unflattening and to purchase a copy of Jesús Cossio’s Barbarie, and have him sign it as well.
Soon after, I made my way over to the stage at the Vera Project, where artist talks were taking place as part of the festival. When I arrived, a talk was already in progress between Emile Ferris and Leela Corman (who has done work ranging from Unterzakhn to the cover of a Mountain Goats album), and moderated by Paul Constant of the Seattle Review of Books. Listening to these wonderful women cartoonists talk was a sincere pleasure. I especially appreciated Ferris’s twisted sense of humor and her encouragement of people over 40 to not be afraid to pursue their artistic goals. After this, Jesús Cossio and Joe Sacco were in conversation with Sarah Glidden (famous for her book Rolling Blackouts), and despite having heard Cossio speak just the night before, hearing one of his stories of Shining Path guerrillas killing crying infants to keep from being discovered by the nearby military made me breakdown.
The final event was Kelly Sue DeConnick in a wide ranging conversation with Qiana Whitted. DeConnick talked about her collaboration with Valentine DeLandro on Bitch Planet, about the negative reaction online from certain retrograde sectors of (mostly male) fandom to her recent claims in an interview—including the fact that Captain America is a “social justice warrior,” and that if you don’t like her books “don’t fucking buy them”—and how opposition to NFL players taking a knee is failure to acknowledge the humanity of the players. “If you can’t respect what they are doing, stick to playing Madden,” she said. She also let us know that she’s not done with superheroes, just more likely to want to play in the established universes than do something creator-owned. She’s great, and afterward, a group of us ICAF folks got to see firsthand how great she really is, because she accompanied us to dinner at a local Indian restaurant, where we rehashed the whole conference, discussed superhero movies, and she gave a few secret peeks into projects she is working on.
By the time dinner was over it was nearly 9 pm, and I had to pack up and get ready for my 5:30 AM car to the airport for my 8 AM flight. Thankfully, due to daylight savings, I got an extra hour of sleep. Unlike ICAF 2016, I was unable to check out any local comics shops, but my bags were bursting anyway, so maybe that was a good thing.
It snowed again the next morning and my flight was delayed nearly an hour, and it took over an hour to find a parking spot when I got back to Brooklyn from Newark Airport, but none of that mattered. Another ICAF had been a success, and soon we’ll be getting ready to start planning the next one. I’m looking forward to it. Like ICAF 2016, I have made a bunch of contacts and some new friends, and while last time the next ICAF seemed very far off, now that I am taking part in organizing the conference, it feels like ICAF 2019 will be here in no time.
I hope to see you then!