A couple of weeks ago, from August 9th to the 11th, I was at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign attending Mind the Gaps, the first ever annual conference of the Comics Studies Society, which according to its website, is “an interdisciplinary society open to all who share the goals of promoting the critical study of comics, improving comics teaching, and engaging in open and ongoing conversations about the comics world.” Since I am among those who answered that first call for signing on and paying dues I am a “founding member” and was excited to have my paper presentation accepted and take part in some great conversations both in panels and throughout the conference with a collection of whipsmart and collegial comics scholars.
When I took a look at the program leading up to heading out to Urbana-Champaign, I realized right away that CSS is looking to have a larger scope in its conference events than ICAF (the conference I help to organize). While ICAF endeavors to keep our conference small and focused, creating a more unified event, Mind the Gaps looks like it will continue to grow as long as growth is sustained by membership. To that end, this conference ran four concurrent sessions in most slots, which means at best I can only report one-fourth of what was going on at any given time. Though, much like ICAF, live-tweeting of sessions were pervasive (using the #CSS18 hashtag on Twitter – you can find the tweets, curated and compiled by Samantha Langsdale, here), and I found myself having multi-modal conversations, where I’d be talking to the people in one room, while tweeting replies to folks at other sessions. And of course, I did a lot of debriefing with those who attended other panels and the gist of others’ presentations even when we could not be there. You should also check out Matthew Noe’s compiled list of all the books (and other texts) mentioned at the conference and Maria Aghazarian’s collaborative Google doc where you can find some stuff not on Twitter.
In the last three years I have really worked to be a part of the comics scholar community. I went to ICAF twice, helping to organize it in 2017, and even saw some folks at MLA this past January (where I gave two different presentations on Love and Rockets). Arriving at these conferences there are a group of people I am eager to see and hang out with. It feels like I am seeing old friends—any initial awkwardness quickly falls away under the weight of inside jokes, slap-happy overtiredness, and of course, a shared love of comics and their scholarly interrogation. And best of all, far from being cliquey, there are new people brought into the fold every time—some graduate student presenting for the first time or some (relatively) young faculty who is new to studying comics having arrived from another discipline, or sometimes just someone who has not been able to make it to one of these conferences yet (or in a while). Unfortunately, there were also a handful of people I would have loved to see again or finally meet in person but were unable to make it.
I flew in Wednesday night and met up with a group of folks for drinks. After discussing where in America you can still find comic book three-packs at a 7-11 and how shitty the academic job market is, has been, may always be. . . I collapsed in bed after a long day of travel with a layover in Chicago, ready for some deep double-nerdiness to begin the next day.
So what follows are my thoughts and recollections of three days of panels, roundtables, events and conversations. As I warned when writing an overview for ICAF in 2016 and 2017, while I am doing my best to provide an overview of the material I saw presented using my memories, written notes, and what I’ve gleaned by looking back on Twitter, these sources all have their limitations, so I can’t claim to have gotten everything 100% correct. I am sure I have, in some cases, missed some important details, misremembered, or over-simplified. Sometimes I found myself so deeply engaged with a presentation that I hardly thought to write anything down, let alone live-tweet, so not having as much detail about some presentations is not a sign that I did not care for it; it might actually mean quite the opposite. Still, if you are one of the people whose work I mention here and you think I have misrepresented you in some way please don’t hesitate to reach out and if necessary I will correct or retract. Furthermore, as I said above, I could only be at one session at a time (though I did do some occasional panel hopping), so if I was not present for your presentation I could not in good conscience say much, if anything, about it. I want readers to remember that every time I gush about a panel, there were up to three other panels going on at the same time, and I encourage folks to check out the program to see what else was offered and that I cannot discuss here.
This overview is very long. Over twice as long as most posts on The Middle Spaces, but there was a lot of material to cover that I did not want to leave out, so please indulge me (or don’t, I won’t be offended).
Day One – Thursday, August 9
Mind the Gaps began with no official fanfare. Registration began about two hours before the first panel and along with the usual name tag on a lanyard they gave out color-coded banners with preferred pronouns which allowed for easy and unawkward reference to everyone regardless of their gender identification. The first panels began at 10 AM. I chose to attend Session 1.1 – Popularity and Privilege, but from the very first session I’d be making some hard decisions about where to be, and I am not sure I always made the best choice, even if there was something to be gained no matter which panel I attended.
Before I get to the panel itself, one thing I want to mention is that this is the first conference I have ever been to where the moderators did not introduce panelists by reading bios and in some cases even affiliations weren’t given (though that was included in the program). I had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, avoiding reading bios aloud saved a lot more time for Q&A afterward, and this conference had consistently some of the longest and most engaged Q&A sessions of any I have ever been to. Furthermore, the eschewing of affiliations/credentials puts all the panelists on equal footing. On the other hand, I think for some younger scholars and grad students having your accomplishments, however limited they might yet be, read aloud to the audience does comes with a kind of thrill. Still, I think the former is a better reason for getting rid of them than the latter is for keeping them.
Regardless, I don’t know about the other concurrent panels, but all three of these panelists began by making comments about the honor of presenting in the very first panel of the very first Comics Studies Society conference. It was poignant to hear eminent comics scholar Charles Hatfield (who co-presented the second paper) discuss how he long dreamed that such an organization could exist, how he networked and cooperated with other scholars to make it a reality, and now here he was presenting at its very first conference. We’d get to hear him talk more about this later that night at the dinner and awards ceremony.
The very first presentation was “How Comics Became Unpopular” by Corey Creekmore. He explored how from a not uncommon perspective comics are less popular than ever, given the sales of what are traditionally considered “mainstream comic books,” and he challenged the notion that the “legitimacy” of comics has an inverse relationship to their popularity. He asked us to consider the split between notions of popular as either defined for a mass audience (i.e. a kind of elitist definition of “popular”) and popular as a measure of sales and how many people read and engage with the comics. A “very popular” Batman comic, for example might sell around 100,000 copies, but in the scheme of popular, that is really more niche than “mass.” As he points out, the move towards “slabbing” comics of this kind moves them from having use-value to having purely exchange-value (if you want to get all Marxist about it, which I like to do), thus reinforcing their niche status. In comparison, Raina Telgemeier has sold millions of comics in book form through Scholastic (which does not even count school orders) and of course over the decades Herge’s Tintin comics have sold hundreds of millions of copies globally. Comics like those of Herge and Telgemeier are isolated from lack of popularity by often not being categorized as comics at all but existing within the book market.
While it is not uncommon to hear someone say that comics are more popular than ever, the truth is what is most often being referred to in these examples is the popularity of the intellectual property that emerges from comics and that is now popular in films and other kinds of media and merchandising. Most comics themselves (or at least what are widely identified as comics) remain unpopular by that measure.
Next up, Craig Fisher and Charles Hatfield presented “Fuck Your Brutish Batman, My Batman Drinks Tea!”: The Pulpy Afterlife of From Hell. In it the two scholars deftly took turns using artist Eddie Campbell’s work to think about the tensions between the serial and the graphic novel and the “legitimizing power” of the latter. Among the aspects they explored were how Campbell used his more mainstream work, like his Elseworld’s painted graphic novel Batman: Order of the Beasts to try out the techniques he’d bring to his creator-owned work like The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard and which made use of elements from less “legitimate” comics through visual references to things like the Fantastic Four and Superman. If nothing else, this presentation really made me want to read The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, but it also got me thinking about the multiple disjunctions in comics (in the industry, its study, and its existence as an artform) around notions of legitimacy and the positional efforts by different groups, individuals, and businesses to reinforce the distinctions from other comics genres and forms as a strategy to break away from narrow ideas of what is valuable.
Last up was Josh Kopin, who is not only the President of the CSS Graduate Student Caucus, he is a member-at-large of the ICAF executive committee, so that means we work together to help organize that conference. In my eyes, he is a rising star of comics studies, smart, motivated, and generous (even if he is a Chicago Cubs fan). His presentation, “R.F. Outcault and the ‘Birth’ of the American Comic Strip: Three Theses,” was sharp and funny, starting with the claim that comics studies is frequently arguing against a thesis we all already know is false, regarding the acceptance of Outcault’s Yellow Kid as “the first comic,” and then using that comic to consider how to put its formal aspects to work in cultural analysis. He was getting us to think about Yellow Kid as a complex mass cultural figure that connects to the history of comics through his reception. I was struck by Kopin’s consideration of representations of sound and time in doing this work, and after the panel we excitedly talked about how sound in comics needs more theorizing.
After the lunch break, I was having a hard time deciding between two of the four roundtables taking place in the second session: Rewriting Women in Comics Studies and Fandom Zones! Under-Scrutinized Intersections of Comics, Other Media and Fan Cultures.
A roundtable in this context is a little different from a panel, in that rather than each panelist presenting a paper for 20 minutes (usually by reading it aloud), followed by a Q&A, in a roundtable, the panelists each speak for about five minutes (sometimes with presentation materials and/or a prepared statement, but usually extemporaneously) on the question or theme the roundtable is meant to explore, followed by a conversation among the respondents and usually (hopefully) a longer Q&A with the audience.
I decided on the “Fan-Zones!” one and I kind of regret it. Not because that roundtable wasn’t interesting, it was and gave me some things to think about but because everything I heard about my other possible choice both afterwards and on Twitter pointed to the brilliance of Jenny Blenk, Margaret Galvan, Francesca Lyn, Rachel R. Miller, and Leah Misemer in conversation on women in comics and comics studies. I mean, I already knew they are brilliant, but I think I let the fact that the topic of women and comics is a common discussion among a particular group of “young” scholars convince me that I could skip out and check out the other roundtable and get the skinny from others who did attend, but as I was sitting at a roundtable of nothing but middle-aged white men, I could not help but think that no matter how fascinating their topic was, it felt incomplete and an example of the source of the kind of frustration I imagine inspired the women-only panel. We have to think about how the assumptions of a pre-existing male canon to which women must then be added shapes which texts get covered, how they are covered, and the reception to that research.
Matthew Noe did a great job of documenting the talk on Twitter. So, you should check it out. The panelists on the “Rewriting Women” roundtable even put together a short zine they gave out to attendees (Jenny Blenk was nice enough to let me get one too).
Getting back to the roundtable I actually attended, I had to walk across the campus to the Undergraduate Library, which was not easy to find and quite a walk from the other events, which I think explained in part why there were so few people there. It was also damn hot out, and by the time I got there I was sweating through my button-down shirt and tie.
The speakers did a great job of considering the intersections of other fandoms and fan activities with comics. Aaron Aubuchon discussed the “monster craze” of the 50s and 60s that arose after classic monster movies began to appear on TV in the late 50s and the rise of the horror TV shows that framed monster movie night (think of Elvira or the fictionalized version played by Malcolm McDowell in 1985’s underrated Fright Night) with hosts that directly addressed an audience of fans. The release of the Hammer Studios’ more modern and explicitly sexualized monster films from the 50s through the 70s, and fan engagement being encouraged and mediated through periodicals like Famous Monsters of Filmland which Warren started publishing in 1958) added to the popular niche. Aubuchon connected this craze with the return of the horror comic in black and white magazine form (thus getting around the Comics Code Authority) in mags like Creepy and Eerie and Vampirella, which in turn would lead to the weakening of the CCA as Marvel and DC wanted to cash in on the monster revival. He also discussed how all the merchandising around the characters helped to keep fans engaged, not only fan clubs, but making models (I remember my older brother having both a Phantom of the Opera and a Wolf Man model), masks, trading cards, make-up, etc…
Michael Phoenix took us through the early history of organized comic book fandom in St. Louis, which included some familiar names in comics like Steve Gerber, and highlighted how younger fans continually took up the torch to keep organizations going, even as interest or resources waned.
Unfortunately, Jonathan Alexandratos could not make it, but Daniel Yezbick read some brief remarks Alexandratos prepared about toys as texts and connecting toy collection and play in conversation with the ways fan build and understand narratives about their favorite characters and franchises. I found his consideration of different and changing audiences for toys (or their simultaneous existence) has shaped attitudes towards toys fascinating. The example of the infamous 1990s Power of the Force Star Wars Action Figures struck me as a perfect exemplar. The notoriously buff representation of Luke Skywalker, for example, may have not satisfied the older collector who is looking for fidelity with the source material (Mark Hamill’s likeness), but in terms of kids who were buying He-Man toys by the millions, the change in body ideals probably made sense as a product to market to that demographic. I am not much of a toy guy myself, but I am interested in intersections between collecting and narrative, so it occasionally comes up in my thinking about comics and other kinds of collecting. So, I was interested and the presentation reminded me that I want to check out Articulating the Action Figure: Essays on the Toys and Their Messages, which Alexandratos edited.
Gene Kannenberg, Jr. discussed his comic Qodèxx, explaining with tongue in cheek that “I used to write about comics, but then I started making my own, except I can’t draw and I don’t have ideas for stories. So, I started doing abstract comics.” He described giving “readings” of the wordless comic with the help of Allison Felus and Brian Cremins, who wrote and performed music while the images were projected on a screen. Qodèxx looked cool and weird and full of squirming alien glyphs. The glimpses I got look like the half-remembered dictation of some victim of the body-swapping Yith in Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Out of Time.” I should have bought one of his mini-comics. Not sure why I didn’t, but I hope to have another opportunity to do so.
Finally, Daniel Yezbick (who also served as moderator) discussed an eco-critical perspective on comics, specifically through animal comics of various kinds (though he did also mention the environmental impact of trying to preserve comics given all the plastic involved and the energy used to maintain environments conducive to their preservation—something I must admit I had never considered before). I loved Yezbick’s breakdown of kinds of animal or animal-themed comics and was particularly interested in his questions about the ubiquity of animal-themed superheroes (and villains). This is something I think fans and scholars of cape comics tend to take for granted, but there is no reason why animal themes had to be so pervasive in the genre. It makes me wonder about the role of animals in conceptualizing moral action and post-human existence.
Session Three was at 2:30 and I walked back over to the main location to attend Session 3.1: Women Through the Decades. In the “Gender Game: Cold War Nostalgia and Women Spies,” Kathleen McClancy explored female spies in comics and the tensions in how the spy is typically positioned as feminine in their duplicity and manipulation, but masculine in their role in international politics, daring-do, and (in the case of characters like James Bond) their sexual prowess. I always find it interesting to consider how frames are used to characterize the same exact behaviors in different lights based on gender (something I spend time in my classes explaining to my students). Ultimately, McClancy wanted us to consider how the spy genre’s holes in presenting their narratives (those things that are visually redacted) through the comics form which operates through its own various narrative gaps and closure is to highlight the gaps in how female spies are characterized.
Next was Adrienne Resha’s “The Blue Age of Comic Books,” which, after providing thumbnails of the various “Ages” in superhero comics, conceptualized the 2010s as “The Blue Age,” named for the blue of screens and the color scheme of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. This age is marked by the digitization of comics and the new ways it provides opportunities for fans to engage with them and for new demographics to access them since many spaces where comics are available range from unwelcoming to downright hostile to fans who do not match the “traditional” idea of who superhero fans are. Imagine women in the dank comics dungeon of the lecherous fan/shop-owner or a disabled person trying to navigate a wheelchair or crutches in those often tight and crowded spaces. Of course, it also makes accessing comics more affordable through subscription services and through folks sharing their digital codes included in some print comics with others via Twitter or other methods. You can read an earlier version of Resha’s paper here. One of the things I loved about her presentation is how she clearly framed it as someone who came to superhero comics as an Arab-American seeking out the representation provided by the premiere of Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel. It fills my heart with joy to know that someone who only came to comics relatively recently is so deeply engaged with them and has such valuable insights to share. It is a reminder of how we need a variety of perspectives on the medium we love. Personally, I am not a fan of digital comics, but I understand how important they are and what they make possible in growing the community of comics fans and providing those who are already here opportunities of new ways to engage.
The final presentation in Session 3.1 was Philip Smith’s “The Pinup, the Monster, and the War: Gender in Horror Comics,” which looked at connections between World War II pin-ups and the treatment of women in horror comics in the post-war era. He made the claim that these horror comics had the potential to defamiliarize the pin-up through the sexualized violence, but I am not sure I buy that—at least not in the context in which horror comics were purchased, traded, and read at the time. In other words, if I was understanding his claim, I am not sure that the horrors suffered by these women in these stories and how they are depicted using poses and motifs common to pin-ups would get readers to reconsider the potential violence of those poses. I appreciated Smith’s brief and sincere content warning before his presentation, but his slideshow did seem to include a surfeit of examples, when a small handful would have done the job. There was an interesting tension in this presentation that I have to give more thought to. While Smith did a fine job providing examples of these intersections and arguing the role of horror in working through the role of gender in shaping and justifying attitudes towards war (i.e. soldiers’ pin-ups provide examples of the “ideal” American womanhood for who those men are fighting to “protect”), the attempt to rehabilitate these images as having a feminist value undersells the power of the images themselves to dehumanize their subjects.
After the final academic panel of the day, we all walked over to David Kinley Hall for the plenary speakers, cartoonists Whitney Taylor and Hazel Newlevant. Both creators walked us through their process for making their comics. Taylor discussed how autobiographical comics are a series of decisions about what to include or omit and how economic conditions shape creative work for cartoonists. She also discussed making use of strengths but also playing off her weaknesses in making her comics, explaining that since not all creators have equal skills sets they have to work with what they got. For example, she said that she thinks of herself as a writer who draws, not an artist who writes. She also discussed how being an autobiographical cartoonist makes the creator vulnerable. These comics, especially when they are about trauma, leave the creator exposed to shame or ridicule or having one’s life defined only by that trauma, and can lead to (the very understandable) desire to retreat back into privacy even though speaking out and making this work can help other survivors.
I knew of Whit Taylor’s great work from The Nib and discussing it some with Francesca Lyn, but Hazel Newlevant’s work was new to me. I was delighted by it. They spent most of her talk discussing the arduous process of creating No Ivy League, which is coming out this fall, and even brought enough copies of a preview chapter from it for all of us to have one. Newlevant explained their pre-writing process using index cards, drawing thumbnail sketches, doing roughs, and using photographs and Google streetview for visual references for her own auto-bio comics work. They also discussed the process of tilling the soil of her memory to make a more shaped story out of the farrago of lived experience, as to create more of a narrative arc. This includes omitting some events, including some experiences that fall outside of the main story’s timeframe, compressing characters and events, etc… Later during the conference, I got to talk to Newlevant briefly when I purchased a comic anthology they edited and contributed to—Chainmail Bikini: The Anthology of Women Gamers—and told them how much I looked forward to reading all of No Ivy League when it was released. The memoir comic’s theme of going from sheltered home-schooled teen to self-awareness in context of identity was already interesting to me, but when they discussed homeschooling as a reaction to integration and busing and the story being in part about coming to face the reality of their own white privilege I knew this comic was up my alley. I was super-impressed with the preview chapter.
If the first day sounds full, that’s because it was. After all this, there was still one event to go, a dinner and reception at Papa Del’s Pizza Factory that included the awarding of the first prizes in what should be the start of a great tradition of recognizing merit in comics studies.
Carol Tilley, the President of the Comics Studies Society (and the person responsible for organizing and hosting the conference – a TON of work), welcomed us all to the conference and opened up the talks by inviting Charles Hatfield up to discuss his work to make the Comics Studies Society a reality. It was also announced, just before the 2017 CSS Book Prize was awarded, that the prize would henceforth be named the “Charles Hatfield Award,” which he was clearly touched and honored to discover. It is certainly well-deserved, not only for his work to support and develop the field of comics studies, but because his own books like Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (2005) (a book I cited heavily in my dissertation and other work) and Hands of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby (2011) are seminal texts. Hatfield mentioned that one of his goals in helping to found the CSS was to establish something that would outlive him and continue to shape comics studies in positive ways. He’s definitely succeeded.
The book award went to Brannon Costello, my fellow ICAF board member and who some of you may remember from when he sat down with me to discuss his work including his book—Neon Visions: The Comics of Howard Chaykin—for the (re)Collection Agency.
The 2017 article prize went to Benoît Crucifix of University of Liège & UC Louvain for “Cut-up and Redrawn: Charles Burns’s Swipe Files” published in Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society.
The 2017 Hillary Chute Award for Best Graduate Student Conference Presentation is awarded to Alex Smith of the University of Cincinnati for “Breaking Panels: Gay Cartoonists’ Radical Revolt.”
A planned fourth prize for public scholarship was not awarded this year, but the CSS Executive Board encourages contributors to re-apply next year as it further refines the definition and scope of the prize. (Though this award was not mentioned at all during the reception).
After all the various official announcements and brief remarks of thanks from those who won awards or were recognized for their contributions to the CSS, the majority of the time was given over to enjoying pizza and beer and mingling with fellow scholars. I got to meet new people and cement relationships with folks I only get to see once or twice a year despite a range of interactions on social media.
By the time I got back to my hotel I was exhausted and quickly fell asleep. The next day’s panels would be starting at 8:30 am.
Day Two – Friday, August 10
Friday started early. The first session began at 8:30 AM and from the first I was once again split in terms of what I wanted to see. Eventually, I decided to check out what was listed as the first paper in the Identity and Intersection panel but sit by the door to slip out and hurry downstairs to catch the last two papers in the Comics and Intellectual Property panel. My plan was to see Carlos D. Acosta-Ponce present “Looking to the Future: Social Identities, Oppression, and Upheaval in Alan Moore’s Watchmen.” Unfortunately, his was not the first paper presented and I am still not sure if he was a last-minute scratch or if they simply went out of order. Instead, I got to hear Richard Diaz-Rodriguez present “Bringing Monsters to Light: Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler’s Defamiliarizing of Western History.” I’m glad I did (and in truth any paper at a conference like CSS’s—much like at ICAF—is going to give you something to consider even if it is not directly related to your interests). Not being a manga person, I had never heard of Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler, but now I want to read it, given Diaz-Rodriguez’s persuasive reading of how it defamiliarizes the typical frame for western history (especially well-known figures like Adolf Hitler) by not centering the figures in the same way European history has. Diaz-Rodriguez explained that this comic presents Hitler as an ordinary man, not to make him sympathetic, but to show the other choices he could have made.
I ducked out as soon this presentation was done and got downstairs just as Andrew Hoberek was beginning his presentation, the rather prosaically named “Licensed Properties.” I would have enjoyed Hoberek’s talk no matter what because it is isn’t often that comics/properties like Micronauts and ROM get mentioned in academic presentations, and anyone who knows me knows of my deep love for these licensed comics. However, he presented the narratives built around licensed properties as strange and alienating in the way Lukacs say classical epics were alienating to their audiences. He calls these licensed worlds of mixed matched properties of the kind we find in films like Toy Story and the LEGO Movie (or that existed when Marvel had multiple licensed properties—like Rom and Micronauts and Transformers—appearing in their shared superhero universe) the epics of capitalism. These narratives aren’t saving toys from being commodities as to preserve some pure aspect of play (like a film like Toy Story would suggest) but are built on a nostalgia that suggests these toys are being saved for the middle-aged men who write these narratives. While this seems like a rather cynical view, I also can’t help but agree with it, even if I am curious what will become possible to the generations to come who engage and create—i.e. play—with these toys and stories and fill the gaps that form as these properties come together and split off again.
Lastly, Lee Konstantinou presented “Love and Rockets and Direct Distribution” which considered the relationship of the highly-regarded alternative comic and the mainstream. Konstantinou argued that Love and Rockets remains under-studied and that the comic provides insight into an alternative trajectory for comics that can be thought of as from going from “corporate comics” to “auteur” comics (rather than the more common other way around) by tracing how despite editor and LnR cheerleader Gary Groth’s claims that Love and Rockets is a wild departure from the mainstream from the outset, it moves from incorporating genre elements and recognizable visual references amid their robots and pro-solar mechanics to focusing on realistic depictions of relationships in a community more in line with alternative comics.
The Q&A for this panel made me wish I had caught the first paper, Vincent Haddad’s “Mining the Public Domain for the BLM Movement” based on the questions he was asked. It seems he was very critical of how Marvel and DC were making use of this moment in the culture about systemic racism and police brutality and its disproportionate targeting of black communities. I wrote a bit about this in “The Captain Black America Needs” and despite the potential I saw in that series, I also felt that it felt short of effectively making use of the comics space to address these subjects in a way that seems like more than simply exploiting the issue’s visibility to appear like a relevant comic without really having anything meaningful to say about it.
Next up was Session #5.1: Rethinking Approaches, in which I presented my paper “Navigating the Middle Spaces: Comic Studies and Public Scholarship.” Before I presented, we got to hear Dale Jacobs’s “The 1976 Project: Methodology, Interdisciplinarity, and Comics Studies.” Jacobs described his project of trying to collect and read every comic released in 1976. While the project began from a nostalgic drive, Jacobs explained how it became a way to think about typicality in comics of an era (rather than the more common search for “exceptional” example meant to “legitimize” comics scholarship). Furthermore, it provides a framework for considering the interdisciplinarity of studying comics in this way, treating comics as points of exchange that allow us to ask questions like: How do we think about methodological questions differently as we move from Daredevil to Archie to Dennis the Menace? How do we think differently about the sociocultural norms of the world in 1976 across these comics? What happens if we compare the paratext (ads, editorials, letters pages) across these different comics? What about how comics are sold using the covers? This kind of project asks for book historians, archivists, formal theorists, cultural studies theorists, etc to all contribute to a view across genres and material forms that provides holistic ways to think about comics. This is fascinating stuff and as someone who spends a lot of time looking at comics from particular eras (especially the 1970s and 80s) it gave me a lot to think about in my own work.
I am not going to spend a lot of time on my own presentation. It was very different from my usual approach (an approach you are probably familiar with if you follow this blog, but if you check out my expansion of my ICAF2016 presentation you will get a sense of what I mean) because I used my own years of experience as scholar on the tenure track job market as the basis for thinking about what it means for comics studies as a marginal and still emerging field given that the academic job market across the humanities is so terrible. As such, I made the claim that we will have a growing number of young comics scholars who will be unable to get jobs, but who nevertheless have a lot to contribute to the field. Compounding this are the disjunctions in comics studies between independent/fan scholars and those with academic jobs, which serve as obstacles to those would-be scholars who want to do comics studies anyway. Ultimately, my paper was about the importance of public scholarship as a site for making use of the openness of the field and working to not replicate the troubling hierarchies of other academic fields when it comes to valuing non-academics’ work on the one hand or independent scholars dismissing what may seem to them the more esoteric approaches of academia. In other words, there is no one way to do comics studies and a diversity of approaches and collaborations across these disjunctions will actually serve to make the field more robust. I ended by quoting independent scholar Jenny Blenk who at the Re-Writing Women in Comics Studies roundtable the previous day said that she wanted to be a door-holder rather than a gate-keeper (several people quoted her in tweets), which I think is more than just a necessary sentiment but should be a form of methodology for the field. Furthermore, I like to think that that door-holding extends to our work reaching beyond just other scholars by valuing anyone who is interested in the study of comics specifically or material culture and literature more generally.
Lastly, Jeanette Roan presented “Practices of Looking: Envisioning Comics Within Art History and Visual Studies” (you might remember Jeanette Roan from her contribution to the Bitch Planet roundtable here on The Middle Spaces earlier this year). Roan discussed having students consider comics from an artist’s perspective, asking what decisions the artist made and why. In general, she called for a greater attention to comics in art history, which tied in nicely with what I was talking about in terms of the openness of the field to different disciplines and Dale Jacob’s claims about his project makes the need for an interdisciplinary perspective obvious. Paying attention to the gaps in not only what is studied, but in ways of studying and the tools and framework made available by different disciplines is crucial.
The Q&A after we presented our papers was a lively discussion and they were all well-received. I have to admit I was relieved since my own paper was so different from what I usually do, and I wasn’t sure how people would react to the “autoethnographic” approach I took.
After lunch (which the conference generously provided, allowing attendees to gather in the conference rooms and discuss the morning’s events), I went to Session 6.4: Materiality and Production. The first presentation was “Advancing Research on the Material Production of Comic Books and Reprints” by Jonathan Olsen. He did a great job using DC Comics’ Crisis on Infinite Earths as an example of the changes in coloring between different editions and how that influences the meaning present in the text. He laid out a great rubric for thinking about distinctions in different printings beyond re-coloring, breaking them into four categories: material (like paper stock), structural (like removal of paratextual elements), technical (like coloring) and textual (removal/addition of credits and/or titles). In opening his presentation, Olsen mentioned that he was not going to cover paper stock in discussing its effect on reprinting and coloration because it was too big a topic to tackle along with his focus on reprinting. This actually turned out to be fine because the Alexander Ponomareff started of the next presentation, “Breaking the Panel: Tactical Decisions in Comic Book Production” by explaining paper stock was exactly what he planned to talk about. Ponomareff’s presentation was awesome. In no small part because rather than read a paper aloud as most of us do at these things, he was much more spontaneous and engaging as he hit his main points. It also helped that he started by using G.I. Joe #2 (August 1982) as his example of re-coloring, a comic I know well because my 5th grade teacher took away my copy when she caught me reading it in class, and I never got to finish it until after the school year was over and I got it back (only about two months later, but an eternity to a 10-year old). Anyway, he explored Marvel and DC’s secretive approach to printing, frequently keeping who did the actual printing under wraps, which makes studying the actual specific techniques difficult. Furthermore, he considered how Marvel (in particular) started advertising better paper stock in the 80s (for example, Baxter paper), but that the names for these various stocks were not always a well-known or standard name. So, we have to ask the question, how did we know Baxter paper was “better?” Basically, because Marvel told us. Of course reprinting comics on other papers rather than newsprint leads to the potential problem when the color guides aren’t updated. So ultimately, Ponomareff wants us to think about various printing techniques and consider how they these changes influence the effectiveness of the coloring in conveying the story (this is what he used G.I. Joe to demonstrate) and to work to dig into the role of physical printing techniques and their marketing as a crucial way to think about comics and its history.
I was able to spend some time talking with Alexander Ponomareff later that night at a bar event related to the conference. We talked about G.I Joe and also our mutual love of graffiti. Like me, he is including a chapter on graffiti in his dissertation, so it was cool to meet someone who has that intersection of comics and graffiti in their scholarship.
The final presentation in this panel was “Recovering a Usable Past: Materiality and Comics History” by Joseph Witek. Witek had his own rubric for thinking about the hierarchies of comics “worthy of study” at different times (not his opinion, but his characterization of the general cultural attitude). As examples he gave two hierarchies, one from circa 1960 ranging from editorial cartoons at the top and comic books at the bottom, and the other from the current moment, and ranging from single author graphic novels on “serious” subjects at the top and “that guy who says we should pay attention to web comics” at the bottom. Part of what Witek was trying to trace was how mediated access to the primary source influences the interpretation of comics and the shape of comics studies in general in order for us to not “reify our heuristics.” In other words, there have been shifts in how and what has been studied by comics scholars, and we can’t ignore what has been valued and why at different times as part of that history. To do so would be to limit the history of comics to narrow views related to those approaches.
The next session was another set of roundtables, and I begrudgingly attended one called “Where are the Comics Studies Jobs?” I attended because friends were respondents on the panel and because I had referenced it in my own talk, saying it would probably “depress the shit out of me and not tell me anything I didn’t already know.” This grudging feeling had nothing to do with the people who took part in the roundtable. It was due to my own experience of the tenure track job market, comics or otherwise, which I made very clear in discussing the importance of public scholarship outside of the realm of just building a CV for job prospects.
My final panel of the day was Session #8.4: Disregarded Gaps, Blanks, and Discontinuities in the Comics Reading Experience, but by this point I was starting to fade from the exhaustion of travel and two full days of events. So, I stayed for the first paper—”Musclemen, Toys, and Career Opportunities: Advertisements and the Reading Experience in 1970s Marvel Superhero Comics”—and then ducked out to head to my hotel room and take a nap before dinner and a “Drink and Draw” event at a local bar (truth is I did more drinking than drawing and more mingling with folks than drinking).
The final presentation I saw on Friday—by Felix Brinker—was right up my alley, since he was talking about the reading experience of comics readers in the 1970s in light of the many advertisements and other paratextual elements. Readers of The Middle Spaces and some of my scholarly work should know that I am fascinated by the reading experience and reading practices, especially when it comes to comics and their frequent connection to seriality. What struck me about Brinker’s presentation was that rather than consider the gaps between issues (as I often do) or the gap between panels (as many comics scholars have), he was interested in the gaps between pages created by those paratextual elements. Brinker convincingly claimed that while many tend to dismiss the various ads in 70s comics as pap to be disregarded, the ads’ repeated pervasiveness suggests some success, and their existence points to these comic books as more than merely carriers of narrative media but as a medial node with multivalent ways to engage with the material artifact. One other thing that was awesome about Brinker’s presentation was his use of animations in his Power Point that showed pages flipping and zoomed in on various elements to effectively demonstrate a reading experience. I’ve written about the pleasure of the comic book serial and the role of gaps in that pleasure, and I have written about ads in comics before, but this made these two subjects dovetail so wonderfully that I know I will have to return to the subject soon. The way Brinker called on things like Marvel Value Stamps and other tools for marketing as providing complex choices by readers about how to read the comic book points to a seriality by other means. Great stuff.
Day Three – Saturday, August 11
Saturday, like Friday, started early. It is funny that in my everyday life the idea of getting up to be somewhere by 8:30 is usually a deal-breaker, but at a conference or on vacation when I am there because I want to be, getting up so early is fine. Mostly I am just the kind of person who resents having to abide by schedules determined by others for shit I don’t really want to do. When I am at a conference I am there because I want to be.
That first session was Session #9.4: Theoretical Lines in which my friend Jeremy Carnes was presenting “Beyond Mere Historicism: Comics and the Formulation of Transhistoric Reading.” Carnes wanted us to use comics’ serial nature and its loose relationship to time to consider how we can de-colonize and reorient our relationship to narratives. Starting with the question, “Do we need linearity to tell a story?”, he then provided three basic ways to consider transhistoric readings of comics:
Expanding how we think about ret-cons in order to consider how they provide readers choices about what to include in their own understood histories of these narratives. In other words, for someone like me, the god awful ret-conning of the events of Giant Size X-Men #1 that occurs in Ed Brubaker and Trevor Hairsine’s X-Men: Deadly Genesis “doesn’t count.” I just ignore that it happened (as many fans and on-going writers do as well). (Jeremy used this example and it was a good one. Another one I can think of is that my conception of Spider-Man ignores anything about his parents being anything but normal everyday people who just happened to die in a car accident).
- Considering the contentious nature of dealing with post-colonial/de-colonized/anti-colonial spaces and how more contemporary representations by authors of color reformulate past representations of these locales.
- De-centralizing Euro-American ideas of time (here using Richard McGuire’s Here as an example) by considering how different moments in time inhabit the same space.
There was one other claim Carnes made early on in his presentation which I put into the same place in my brain where I placed Ramzi Fawaz’s claim (in response to a question at his keynote speech at ICAF 2017) that the superhero body in motion (particularly when fighting) is under-theorized and Christopher Pizzino’s notion of “the body of the comic reader.” Carnes said, “the movement in a comic is at least as important as the words.” I have all those three ideas churning in some dark corner of head and who knows? Maybe one day something brilliant will come out!
Next up was “Beyond a Definition of Comics” by Kenneth Oravetz who wanted us to consider the danger of definitional approaches to dealing with comics which may lead to us ignoring or misconstruing that which does not fit the ready-made definition. This includes prioritizing narrative as the primary way to read comics. Instead, he see various approaches and possible definitions as lenses to be applied and removed. This presentation made me think of Colin Beineke’s “On Comicity” from a recent issue of Inks, except Beineke was arguing the inverse. How to use comics as a lens for examining other fields.
Last up was Marc Singer presenting, “Maps and Legends: Empiricism and the Humanities in Comics Studies.” Singer is a scholar I have deep respect for and whose work I frequently find very useful, but that I also frequently find myself disagreeing with. As such, while I found his critique of empirical approaches to comics a useful complement to the skepticism of cultural studies approaches he also encourages, I could not agree with some of his presumptions. For example, he wondered aloud if we need to spend time on the obviously problematic in comics narratives and representations, to which I could not help but murmur, “But what is ‘obvious’ and to who? The obvious is not always so obvious.” I wish I had been able to take more notes of his talk and had more to say about it than the minor point of contention I remember. What did strike me was how my complaint about how he framed the question regarding to what degree are we expected to address questions of problematic cultural logics regardless of our actual focus in looking at any particular comic or set or aspects of comics, reminded me of my disagreeing with Ramzi Fawaz’s answer to the question of the male gaze and superheroes that arose from his keynote at ICAF 2017 (I know, I’ve mentioned it twice now). I can understand that it can be exhausting to try to preempt any possible complaint of not addressing a particular lens of analysis, but I also think that is imperative to note or reference those possibilities in good faith, even if just in act of momentarily putting them aside. I also think that our individual inability to notice our blindspots gives us all the more reason to genuinely ask ourselves those questions each and every time and to make sure our audiences and interlocuters know we’ve considered those questions. I don’t care if your approach is purely “empirical” or down the autoethnographic rabbit hole. (Update: Then again, I may have just been conflating someone he quoted with his own view and misunderstood his point, which is my bad. Check out the comments on this post below for more on that).
Anyway, as I suggested above, I am giving Singer’s presentation short shrift because my notes are too sketchy, and this was the one thing that stuck in my mind. I recommend reading his work for yourself, including a new book he has coming out in January 2019: Breaking the Frames: Populism and Prestige in Comics Studies. Oh, and above all I was happy to hear him cite Erving Goffman, because as someone who started out thinking he was going to be a sociologist, Goffman’s influence on my perspective has never gone away.
At 10:30 AM I made my way to Session #10.2: The Text and the World to see Brannon Costello present “Southern Knights and the Borders of Comics Studies.” Having used Costello’s work on representations of the American South in superhero comics before I was eager to hear his take on this odd comic from the black and white boom of the 1980s. Set in Atlanta, Costello’s analysis of Southern Knights demonstrated how the comic inadvertently highlights the elisions in that city’s identity as distinct from the stereotypes of the South and a forward-thinking international and cosmopolitan site in a region known for its racial turmoil and shameful history. Despite Atlanta being characterized as “the city too busy to hate,” the comic book’s near total erasure of its black majority and sympathy with the “Lost Cause” view of the Civil War in the history it constructed for itself that also created a faux-New England Puritan foundation for the place that was inhabited by indigenous people is by turns troubling and amusing, but also highlights the contradictions in constructing a “modern” Southern identity.
I think considering how superhero comics frequently intersect with notions of urban spaces in ways that simultaneously erase and reinforce aspects of their cosmopolitanism is something that can probably stand more scholarship that moves away from generic assumption of the northeastern city and towards a more positional and thus regional perspective on how superheroes both shape and are shaped by those imagined understandings of place.
I then hopped over to Session #10.3: Seeing the Other but feeling blurry-eyed I stopped to get some coffee along the way and ended up missing most of it by the time I arrived. From what I could tell the presenters were taking approaches I’d never consider. Todd Hooper’s “Media Influence on the Perception of Muslims: A Study on the Effect of Images in Comics” was about a study Hooper undertook with his own students in Japan, that despite its limited scope in terms of subjects, seemed to suggest that while negative images of Muslims did lead to a more negative view of the group, positive images had a limited to negligible ability to create positive perceptions of Muslims. Should such a conclusion hold true, it would certainly be sad news indeed, but the small focus and the cultural specificity of the study make me feel like we can’t put too much weight on its findings—something Hooper himself acknowledged. “Their Eyes are Still Watching God: Identity as Embodied Gradients of Violence and Oppression in Black Panther, Daredevil, and Watchmen” by J. Scott Jordan was wild and to be honest, hard to follow. It was unclear to me why he was using these particular comics or comics at all to explore the cognitive-basis for identity in considering how me make choices. In fact, the best example he gave was from a comic not even mentioned in the title, Alias, and considering what the experience of being mind-controlled felt like in comparison to what is ostensibly freewill. It could be I was too tired to make much sense of Jordan’s complex neurological and psychological approach. It could also be that presenting on comics was a new field for him, but what he presented felt like it needed refining to get at the core of some potentially fascinating way to consider these issues of contradiction between the feeling of the autonomous self and the autonomic functions of the brain that shape our actions and experience.
After lunch (again provided by CSS and shared with colleagues in one of the meeting rooms) I went to Session #11.2: Out of Print: Transmedial Comics Studies. First Jenny Blenk took us on a journey thinking about disability in the various incarnations of Daredevil, from his foundational version at the hands of Frank Miller to Ben Affleck’s cinematic version to the currently popular version on Netflix. Her paper, “Daredevil and the Representation of Blindness Across Media” had us considering the degree to which we cannot count on progress in the representation of the disabled even as she broke down various criteria to use to evaluate the representation through the relationship of his blindness to interpersonal relationships, romance (as specific element used to other him by suggesting his disability makes romance impossible and/or fetishizes him), autonomy, appearance, and visible blindness (how other characters “read” his blindness).
Next was “Transmedia is Magic: Transmedial Synergy Between the My Little Pony Comics and TV Show” in which Aaron Kashtan did an amazing job taking us through the rich interactions of the two narrative manifestations of the franchise and getting us to consider the complexity in how these parallel narratives influence or build on each other.
Nicholas Miller rounded off the panel, presenting “You Look Like the Attractive, Yet Non-Threatening, Racially Diverse Cast of a CW Show”: Transmedial Representation from Archie to Riverdale. He began by explaining that was an attempt to understand his own fan practices, an impetus I can understand and fully support. Miller explored how the actresses in real life leverage their TV character identities in disseminating political (particularly feminist) messages via social media. When an actress uses a panel from a comic featuring her character to fight back against slut-shaming (for example) it provides new opportunities to (re)interpret those original characters and stories. However, Miller was also careful to point out that when panels are taken out of context we can forget the ways that the original reinforced toxic and/or traditional attitudes towards female autonomy and sexuality. His paper left my mind clicking considering the meme-ification of comic panels and how the possibilities of isolation and re-contextualization are wonderfully meaningful side effect of the medium. I’m sure someone has written about this. I need to do some research.
The last event of the weekend was a final slot of roundtables and I attended Session 12.2: Teaching Long-Running Serialized Comics Narratives in The University Classroom and Beyond. This was a small group so while each of the respondents had a chance to make a statement on the topic, it quickly became a conversation involving everyone in the room. The talk was framed in terms of the “problem” of teaching long-running serial in terms of student access to the texts and them having the context necessary to understand the narrative thread of a serial that’s been—in some cases—going on for decades. Is it even really a problem? Of course, as I mentioned in the conversation, as far as I’m concerned, the “problem” is actually the thing to teach. In other words, the fragmented and partially erased nature of long serials have a lot to tell us about how they cohere, how audiences engage with them, and how creators create and structure them. I particularly liked Blair Davis’s strategy of assigning his students to watch The Young and the Restless everyday for the semester. It is a sink or swim approach to getting students to immediately engage with a very long ongoing serial for which they have little to no frame of reference for understanding what is going on at the point where they happen to start. I have used soap operas as an example of the pleasure of the serial, so the connections make sense to me. We also discussed the issue of the fan boy student know it all, but how the range of serials usually moves them from confident in their knowledge and/or trying to dominate the conversation to thinking about the frames of that knowledge as it applies to other genres besides superheroes.
And so, the first annual Comics Studies Society Conference, Mind the Gaps was officially over. There was one last business meeting for members with some closing remarks, the presentation of a gift to Carol Tilley who did so much work to organize the event, and some announcements about the future, like Qiana Whitted (who unfortunately couldn’t be there) taking over as editor-in-chief of Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society and the fact that the next conference would be about a week earlier and held in Toronto at Ryerson University with the theme of “comics/politics.” Furthermore, there was some discussion of how CSS was working to make more funds available to graduate students to help defray the cost of travel and accommodations which will be that much pricier given the international locale. I hope that extends to contingent faculty as well.
After the conference was really over a group of us caravanned over to G-Mart Comics and met up with some others already there and descended on its long boxes of comics. There was a huge back room with some unsorted collections that the proprietor allowed us to buy out of at cover price, which meant that Jeremy Carnes was able to start his Power Pack collection at 60 cents an issue, and I got the first six issues of Alan Moore and Gene Ha’s Top 10 for cover price as well. There were also some hilarious and curious finds, like Leah Misemer snatching up copies of Marvel’s Models Inc. series featuring Millie the Model and guest starring Tim Gunn! I really hope she decides to write about it.
Following our trolling of the long boxes and leaving the guy behind the counter happy for all the business we brought him, a group of about 12 of us hit up a local restaurant where our mutual company made up for the lackluster food (the starters were great, but the place was all about a la carte sliders and those sliders were bad!). Unlike other academic conferences I have been to, I found Mind the Gaps to be like ICAF in that intellectual energy was matched by a supportive social energy that is just as important. Over and over I saw people encourage each other, ask insightful questions, and help each other out in lots of ways and being a part of that does the heart good. This was true across the board from senior scholars to young faculty to graduate students.
The next day I was up at 4:30 AM to share a Lyft to the airport with two other folks for a 6:30 flight to Chicago and a 9:30 flight back to New York City. I felt charged up to write, but aside from this overlong overview I haven’t had a chance yet because of all of the other stuff that gets crammed into a summer “break” before the new semester starts. Still, I will find myself returning to this experience, hunting down books and comics mentioned or recommended, and no doubt will feel their influence on my work both here on The Middle Spaces and my work for scholarly publication. I don’t know yet if I will make it to Toronto next year, but this experience has got me jazzed up for ICAF 2019 (where I will definitely be).
Whether I make it next year or not, I think this is the beginning of a new tradition in comics studies that does its part to establish a culture in the field that eschews the toxic hierarchies and gate-keeping present in both academia and fandom that will hopefully outlast us all. There is a lot to be excited about and look forward to. If you have stuck with this overview this far, thanks! You deserve some kind of reward (go treat yourself to a comic book or a cookie, or both!). However, I want to end on a reminder that this was just a thin slice of all the events and papers and conversations that occurred at Mind the Gaps. I could not possibly do the whole thing justice.