Thoughts on ICAF 2014

I had the great pleasure to be part of the International Comic Art Forum where all of these superb artists and scholars convened for three days of intense discussion about comics at (The) Ohio State University. It's one of those incredibly rare opportunities to hear Phoebe Gloeckner, Dash Shaw, Carol Tyler, Justin Green, Hanneriina Moisseinen, Jeff Smith, Nate Powell and Congressman John Lewis rivet audiences just after hearing academic talks on Rube Goldberg, the Hernandez Brothers, Y the Last Man, and comics about the Rwandan genocide. It was also a chance for me to catch up with some friends, make some new acquaintances, and be a small part of what might be a defining moment in the comics studies field's development: the founding of the Comics Studies Society, the first of its kind in America.

 

What follows are thoughts on the event as best as I can remember them based on my shaky memory and notes scribbled in handwriting which my students have described as "archaic" and "Paleolithic." (Okay, not that last one.) My recollections shouldn't be taken as more than recollections. If you want to follow an online thread about the week's events, search Twitter for #ICAF14.

 

And let's just say, right off the bat, that The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum was a generous host, and we owe that institution much thanks, as well as the indefatigable Jared Gardner and Bill Kartalopoulos, who held the weekend together as emcees. Any pictures below were taken by Jared unless otherwise noted. You can visit his Flikr album here.

 

The Papers

 

Keynote speaker Bart Beaty started us off with his talk, "Comics Studies: Here Be Dragons," a sociological approach to the field and its subjects. The centerpiece of Beaty's talk was a mapping of comics studies' subject matter in a fashion heavily influenced by Pierre Bourdieu, with a high volume of cultural capital juxtaposed against the low, and cultural capital (prestige) measured against economic success (wealth and popularity). The conclusion: comics studies remains somewhat fixated on the center of this map with leanings toward those works which possess both prestige and success. Not surprisingly, perhaps, given that art history has been slow to join the mélange that is comics studies, artists are not well-represented unless they also write their own work, which explains (in part, at least) why Spiegelman, Satrapi, and Bechdel dominate the results. Beaty's research utilized primarily the MLA database of journal articles, and as one scholar pointed out to me, that excludes the entirety of the International Journal of Comic Art, which has published an average of 30 articles per issues since the early 2000s. I should point out that Beaty presented all of this with a sense of humor, implying that the research can seem like something of a contest in which no one is winning very much.

 

This was the first excursion into Big Data re: the comics studies field that I've experienced, and I remain leery of the significance of its value. Aside from the relatively small sample size of the MLA database, the research also excludes writing done in more popular media like The Comics Journal and The Hooded Utilitarian, let alone web-based academic journals like The Comics Grid and The Comics Forum. (I'm not sure if ImageText is included in the MLA database or not.) But there's a compelling argument to be made that comics studies has generally been conservative, or at least centrist, in nature, which is something to think about. I'd argue that this is a result of two goals prevalent in comics studies to this point: to establish the legitimacy and the history of the art form in an institutional academic culture. Those goals perhaps invariably lead to a centrism.    

 

Erudition in the morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Erudition in the morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Next I attended the "Comics Form and Fine Art" panel featuring Ben Owen, Adrielle Anna Mitchell, Andrei Molotiu, and Colin Beineke on subjects ranging from Marcel Duchamp to Paul Klee to William Steig to Andy Warhol. It was while discussing the latter that Colin Beineke dropped on us the term "comicity," a word to describe that ambiguous but very real sense of meaningful sequence in visual art. I love when people make up words. Words are, after all, made up. The connection between fine art and comics was a focus of this year's ICAF, and this panel addressed it without any of the supplications and bending-of-the-knee that sometime accompany such discussions. Instead it showed how cartooning throughout the twentieth century was coterminous with and influenced the modernist art which has long maintained a higher place on the cultural value scale.  

 

I was lucky enough to be part of a panel with Josh Kopin and Jeremy Stoll titled "Fictional Faultlines" and moderated by the fantastic scholar Rebecca Wanzo. Josh did a close reading of Gilbert Hernandez's Heartbreak Soup while Jeremy discussed "Comics Between Art and Underground in India," making some connections between Beaty's brief discussion of site-specific comics and Jeremy's own research in India. I was happy to learn a little more about Manta Ray and see people snapping up the anthology Jeremy put together, Dogs!, a collaboration between American and Indian cartoonists, the proceeds of which benefit dog shelters in Michigan and India.

 

I discussed my ongoing research project on Marvel's The 'Nam, focusing on the death of the character Mike Albergo in issue #9 and what that can tell us about the comic's ideology. As usual I had a hard time deciding what to leave out (twenty-minute limit and all), but I hopefully at least began to make the case for reconsidering some of the accepted wisdom about the series' politics, to say nothing of how we engage with an entire comic book series written by more than one author. It's my belief that the latter run of The 'Nam, especially the dregs of issues #52-#70 or so, have obscured its admittedly qualified successes.  

 

Here is as good a place as any to digress a moment about how welcoming ICAF is to people like myself who are not two-feet-firmly-entrenched in the traditional, tenure-track academic world (a world that is rapidly eroding, by the way). My place in comics studies—in any high-caliber academic community, really—always feels tenuous and nerve-wracking, but then my nerves are often wracked anyway. I think of myself as a writer first, an artist with critical tendencies and ambitions, someone whose most lucid and maybe compelling thoughts come out on the page, so I admire the scholars who can engage in a discussion like intellectual boxers, accessing their considerable memory banks and jabbing (collegially) with a Frederic Jameson here, a Bernie Wrightson there, while I'm trying to remember exactly what neoliberalism is. The most difficult part of any academic presentation for me is the Q&A, both as a questioner and responder. Hopefully I acquitted myself well during the Q&A, though I think I mentioned the comics publisher Eclipse when I meant the Marvel imprint Epic. Some of that's to be expected. For the most part I roam around different camps like an interloper, worrying about being a dilettante, admiring the people who have sunk their teeth into one primary discipline. These people have PhDs. I have an MFA which I earned through a lot of hard work, sure, but also a lot of drinking while I was playing in a rock and roll band. But in general, ICAF and the comics studies field in general is full of people who come from different disciplines who perhaps appreciate the drawbacks of overspecialization.   

 

Next up was the "Comics and Institutions Roundtable" moderated by the aforementioned Jared Gardner and featuring Billy Ireland curator Jenny Robb, esteemed scholar and newly-minted president of the Comics Studies Society Charles Hatfield, and ICAF's academic director Toph Marshall. My notes from this are scant, unfortunately, but one thing that stuck out was the need for more financial backing for institutional endeavors. The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum is a study in the importance of funding and how securing it works in a massive institution like Ohio State. (Someone should do a study of this, by the way.) As we move forward, the participants all seemed to agree, what's less important than creating a center for the field is the creation of a vibrant network for the field—and this requires money at the local and national level, including endowed academic positions.

 

Which seems like a good time to break from the papers and presentations to discuss….

 

The Comics Studies Society goes live. Photo by me.

The Comics Studies Society goes live. Photo by me.

The Comics Studies Society

 

As I understand it, more will be announced soon in an official capacity about the formation of CSS, so I don't want to steal any thunder. I also don't want to suggest a larger role for myself than I've played, which has been to attend two meetings (one last year at the Billy Ireland's festival, and then this year), read along in the email chains, and vote. An enormous amount of credit is due to Charles Hatfield, who really has been the prime troublemaker here (and troublemakers are almost always good in my book). Accordingly, he was voted into the position of CSS' first president at the meeting held Friday, Nov. 14 at lunch, following the ratification of the society's bylaws.

 

Mainly I'm just pleased as hell that this has come into being, and that it happened during ICAF in the Billy Ireland, two lynchpins of this growing field. My hope is that it lends more institutional legitimacy to the study of comics. That alone would be significant.

 

If you're interested in joining, contact me and I'll put you in touch with Charles. There's a placeholder website for the society here.

 

Back to the Papers

 

I'm already running long! So much to say about ICAF, really. Let me point out just a few more highlights from the academic talks. The "Examining Underground Comix" panel was excellent. For myself it was a chance to learn about comics I have little experience with, especially the LGBTQ comics discussed by Sean Rogers and Corey Creekmur. It was also clear from Brian Cremins' talk on Richard "Grass" Green that the cartoonist, like those discussed by Rogers and Creekmur, deserve more critical attention. Naturally this was an interesting rejoinder to Beaty's earlier talk, and in general, I found ICAF to be encouraging regarding the diversity of subjects being studied.

 

Also, a note to the young scholars out there: It's totally cool to change the title and focus of your talk from what you submitted, so long as it's close. Everyone did it, you can, too,

 

Jennifer Anderson Bliss delivered the John Lent Award Lecture (congratulations, Jen!) with a talk titled "Picturing the Unspeakable in Global Comics". Hopefully the dissertation from which her talk was extracted will become a book before too long, because it's fascinating and addresses an area overlooked in comics: trauma studies. Bliss' focus in her talk was on the "crisis of the visual" as it appears (or fails to appear) in a number of comics about the Rwandan genocide. What was particularly compelling was her discussion of the importance of landscape and setting to comics that depict violence and trauma, a topic which I'll need to apply to The 'Nam. It's clear that what gets left out, goes unrepresented, is erased becomes as powerful as what is depicted, and is just as politically and ideologically motivated. Bliss also touched on a common argument in Vietnam War studies, the idea that history cannot be fully understood, or that it can only be understood in fragments. The danger of this, Bliss pointed out, is that it threatens to silence the voices and experiences of the victims of that history.

 

Lastly, one of the most powerful panels I sat in on was "Ideologies of the Monstrous," another topic tailor-made for comics but not often discussed. Kathryn Manis discussed "The Post-Apocalypse and Contemporary Comics" by focusing on two works by Brian K. Vaughn, Y the Last Man and The Private Eye, while Joshua Zirl delivered an entertaining talk on the short comic "Jenifer" by Bernie Wrightson and Bruce Jones. Then you had Scott Bukatman sharing more of his work on Hellboy in "Hellboy at the Gates of Hell" (lots of hell in that), which is part of a book he's working on, I believe. One of the reasons this panel stood out, aside from the quality of each talk, was the way their subjects spoke to one another. Horror has always taken on different significances at different times in history, so it was interesting to see it applied here to issues of neoliberalism, gynophobia, and the formalism of comics.

(l. to r.) Scott Bukatman, Josh Zirl, Kathryn Manis

(l. to r.) Scott Bukatman, Josh Zirl, Kathryn Manis

 

The Cartoonists

 

One of the best aspects of ICAF is the inclusion of comics artists, and from the list waaaay at the top of this post, you can see that this year's guests were quite the group. The chance to see Carol Tyler and Justin Green on stage together was phenomenal, particularly their banter just off-mic which was as intimate and funny as you would expect of a couple that has been married for so long. I've gotten to know Carol over the past couple years—she's a frequent guest at the SPACE expo here in Columbus and she was a featured guest at Mix 2013 at CCAD—and I love her blunt honesty, a quality she shares with her friend and colleague Phoebe Gloeckner.

 

(l. to r.) Carol Tyler, Phoebe Gloeckner, Justin Green

(l. to r.) Carol Tyler, Phoebe Gloeckner, Justin Green

What to say about Phoebe's talk? It happened right after Jennifer Anderson Bliss' graphic discussion, but even then we weren't prepared for the intensity of Phoebe's work and candor. And courage. This is a person who travels to Mexico to document drug-related killings on her own. Her ongoing project, in the works for ten years or so, if I remember right, combines 3D sculpture—dolls of felt—with the comics art form to tell heartbreaking and rage-inducing stories of the people murdered. At one point Phoebe said, "If things aren't going to be okay, can't they at least be beautiful?" There's a strange beauty to this project, an unnerving calm that doesn't sentimentalize or redeem the horror of what's happened. As she described it, the work shows the liminal state of recent death, the inbetween-ness of life and its erasure.

 

On a not-exactly-lighter-note, but an exciting one, Phoebe discussed spending a few weeks on the set of the film adaptation of her incredible Diary of a Teenage Girl, which should be in theaters next year. She seemed pleased with the production.

 

Hanneriina Moisseinen was the focus of the final panel on Friday. Following Phoebe's talk must have seemed like a tall order, but the Finnish cartoonist acquitted herself well. Her work combines fine art—especially textiles—with comics in a way that seems almost completely unexplored in the US, and her comics remind me a little of woodcuts. Her book Isä sold out almost immediately. It details the story of her father, who went missing when Hanneriina was young. Later that night we screened Laulu, a documentary about the cartoonist, the creation of Isa, and her friendship and apprenticeship with Finland's last surviving singer of runes, a form of epic poetry set to beautiful, powerful music. To be honest, I wasn't sure I'd be attending the screening—I was wiped out from the two days—but I'm glad I attended.

 

Saturday's featured artists began with Dash Shaw, who has to be one of the most compelling young cartoonists working today, especially for his use of color. His talk was affective and charming; his nervousness—most of the cartoonists seemed a bit nervous—was leavened by the depth of understanding he has about his own work. One observation that stood out was his comparison of his use of color to the way films use sound and music as emotional cues to the audience, which resulted in him performing the "eee! eee!" strings from Psycho. He also observed that comics' fandom, evidenced by cosplay, is more diverse than the comics than fandom loves. I've never heard anyone put it that way, but it seems totally true.

 

The afternoon wrapped up with an informal talk between Jeff Smith and The Comics Reporter's Tom Spurgeon, who'd been attending the entire conference and I'm sure will post a report on ICAF that will put mine to shame. These two have known each other for years, and it showed in the friendly banter and thoroughness of the discussion. (Jeff was the keynote guest at Mix 2013, and we brought Tom in to interview him for that, too.) This was a chance for Jeff to talk more about Tüki, his new ongoing webcomic which is being collected into floppies. One thing I really admire about Jeff is his dedication to research and how he channels it so thoroughly into his work that it doesn't stick out; it just becomes the story.

Jeff Smith and Tom Spurgeon

Jeff Smith and Tom Spurgeon

 

Here's where I'll mention another big announcement but not say too much about it: Cartoon Crossroads Columbus. Jeff has been leading this effort to create a big comics festival, it's been in the works for over a year, and Tom will be offering his wisdom to the project. There you go. More on that another time, but I will say that it's going to be fantastic.

 

The conclusion to ICAF was a happy accident. The original March event featuring Congressman Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell was scheduled to take place in September, but had to be cancelled when Lewis was called back to D.C. That it could coincide with the Forum was serendipitous. I was particularly pleased that among all the well-deserved pomp and circumstance, Nate was able to talk at length about how he creates the memoir comic. I don't think that's been addressed often enough in the media coverage I've seen about March.

 

(l. to r.) Nate Powell, Andrew Aydin, John Lewis

(l. to r.) Nate Powell, Andrew Aydin, John Lewis

Miscellany

 

The home stretch! I was happy to see so many of my students from CCAD's Comics and Narrative Illustration attending the panels. A couple of them—Juan, Alissa!—were at nearly every event. I truly believe that experiencing events outside of the classroom is crucial to a college education, and it gave us a chance to have dinner Saturday night and just talk informally about what they'd seen and heard. Art students are like sponges, really, but there's always the chance in our internet culture that a student will think he or she already knows what's out there. ICAF is like reading an encyclopedia in one day,  but with free coffee and better conversation.

 

That's also why the olds like myself attend these things. Thursday night I was able to have dinner with Phoebe Gloeckner purely by accident because she was meeting up with Jeremy Stoll, who studied with her at Michigan State. (Jeremy presented his work at both Mix symposiums and we hung out at ICAF in Portland last year.) I cannot report on what Phoebe had for dinner. We also had dinner with Tom Spurgeon and a host of other scholarly types Friday night, and then there was the after hours drinking down in the Arena District with Phoebe, Dash, Hanneriina, youngs and olds mixing it up, Saturday amidst a sea of Bluejackets fans before we adjourned to The Elevator, which is a beautiful bar. I cannot report on what anyone drank.

 

There was a different, more excited energy to this ICAF than the 2013 version in Portland. Maybe that's because this was my second experience, or because it was in my hometown and I could go home and sleep in my own bed every night. That's not to say ICAF 2013 was a dull affair, by any means. Maybe it was the establishment of CSS, the involvement of the Billy Ireland, which, as Tom Spurgeon has called it, really is the "church of comics," at least in the US.

 

I don't know if I'll ever use the tote bag I received as a presenter, but damn it looks like, and it was filled with goodies.

 

Someone told me he was riding a bus back downtown to the hotel and overheard two college students talking about Windsor McCay. Only in Columbus? he said. Maybe.

 

To the people who plan the urban sprawl that is the Ohio State campus: Some restaurants on High Street that appeal to non-undergrads would be nice. I realize the undergrads hit the bars, as do the grad students—I did, with frequency; I lived in Larry's for a while, it seemed—but it was painfully obvious that the immediate campus area lacks restaurants that appeal to an older audience.

 

One of the nicest aspects of the conference was its mix of graduate students and established professors, which might also help explain that energy. It's a sign of a healthy field of study that there's so much exchange going on between younger and older scholars.

 

The next ICAF will be held in spring 2016 at the University of South Carolina, so it should at least be warmer. If you're writing and researching about comics, put this on your calendar.

Posted on November 22, 2014 and filed under Comics Studies.