Comics Forum 2014: Registration Open


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Registration for Comics Forum 2014 – Violence: A Conference on Comics is now open! This year’s conference will feature nearly 40 papers, which we’ll be announcing here shortly, so be sure to check back to see who’ll be speaking and what they’ll be talking about.

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To register, simply email with your name and how many tickets you’d like.

See you in November!

Comics Forum 2014 is supported by: Thought Bubble, the University of Chichester, Dr Mel Gibson and Molakoe.

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Posted by on 2014/10/15 in Comics Forum 2014


Manga Studies #5: Takeuchi Osamu and Manga Expression pt. 1: Tezuka Osamu as Manga Locus by Nicholas Theisen

Takeuchi Osamu, a professor of media studies at Doshisha University, is likely not the best manga studies critic to use as an introduction to problems surrounding the relatively recent turn in Japanese manga studies discourse to formalism or, more specifically, to the study of manga expression (manga hyōgen), since his work is something of a too easy target.  It is parochial—his examples, despite pretensions toward general principles, are exclusively Japanese—and has changed surprisingly little since the late 1980s, despite the fact that his contemporaries, such as Natsume Fusanosuke and Yomota Inuhiko, and the manga expression discourse in toto have changed considerably in the intervening years. Yomota’s Manga genron (Principles of Manga) makes reference to at least some non-Japanese comics artists, notably Windsor McCay, and in the introduction to a recent translation of two chapters of his Tezuka Osamu wa doko ni iru (Where is Tezuka Osamu?), Natsume reflects on how limited this early formalist work was and, if reproduced today, would have to be understood within the context of a global comics studies discourse:

At the time I wrote this book, my interests generally centered on postwar Japanese manga, and the scope of my inquiry was almost entirely limited to Japan.  If we were to consider European and American influences on manga from the Meiji period [1868-1912], the discussion in this book on transformations related to time and panel articulation would link to world-historical questions of modernity (changes in the expression of time and space in modern times)… Future research will surely depend on sharing knowledge and intellectual exchanges between scholars in different countries.[1]

While a turn away from more parochial concerns is admirable, a broadening of perspective on manga-as-comic expression is not guaranteed to overcome or even make apparent a number of assumptions underlying the study of manga expression as it emerged historically and in direct response to the currents of nearly two decades of manga criticism that preceded it.  In order to make those assumptions more apparent, my use of Takeuchi’s critical oeuvre here is directed more toward discourse analytical ends than toward a detailed explication of what his theory of manga expression entails.

In part one, I will focus on how the manga of Tezuka Osamu function as a primary site, a manga locus, wherein Takeuchi and others readily find the base text upon which their formal theories are founded.  Additionally, I will show how he situates his own work in the discourse surrounding Tezuka’s corpus and how, in doing so, he subsumes even those critics who might try to go beyond it into a broadly based Tezuka centrism firmly rooted within manga studies discourse.  In part two, I will focus on Takeuchi’s historiographic work so as to examine a certain overlap between where manga might be located historically and what subsequently manga is presumed to be in formal terms.  I will show how Takeuchi’s emphasis on print media for children explains a number of inclusions and oversights with regard to what manga might be in the postwar era.

Within Japanese formalist manga criticism, no artist’s work has been more consistently taken as emblematic than that of Tezuka Osamu. As Jaqueline Berndt notes in her “Considering Manga Discourse” essay,

[Tezuka] influenced generations of manga creators and readers, including such critics and researchers as Osamu Takeuchi [sic], originally a professor of children’s literature, and “manga columnist” Fusanosuke Natsume [sic]… In their analysis, Tezuka’s comics for children appeared revolutionary because of their shift from didactics to entertainment, their establishment of long and exciting narratives, the efficient and complementary intertwining of verbal and pictorial elements, and—most importantly—their use of allegedly cinematic techniques such as montage and varying shots and angles.[2]

“Cinematism” (eiga-teki shuhō) becomes the watchword for an entire critical discourse that plays out with Tezuka’s manga as the primary locus of analysis but extends well beyond him.[3] As Berndt goes on to note, this cinematic frame forces manga to be understood primarily in temporal terms, and so graphic elements are always subordinate to narrative.  The Tezuka mythos is, of course, not universally accepted, even by those who valorize him, and extends well beyond Takeuchi’s scholarship and even manga studies in Japan.

Thierry Groensteen too, in one of the earliest works on manga in French, L’Univers des mangas: Une introduction à la bande dessinée japonaise (The Universe of Manga: An Introduction to Japanese Comics), regards Tezuka as le fondateur (the founder):

Osamu Tezuka [sic]… is not the pioneer of Japanese comics, a title which rightly belongs to Rakuten Kitazawa [sic], but is one whose innovations, immediately after the war, gave manga new foundations, is one in whom an entire generation of artists recognized their master.[4]

Additionally, the introduction to Frederik Schodt’s Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics was written by the “master” himself and treats Tezuka’s manga at great length.  For Scott McCloud Tezuka’s work is a primary exemplum for how his method of charting panel transitions demonstrates an essential difference between Japanese and Anglo-American comics.  Tezuka-centrism, then, is well-inscribed in the manga studies discourse, both Japanese and non-Japanese alike.  However, because McCloud and Groensteen have arguably limited access to Japanese comics scholarship, due to the language barrier, it should be noted that their Tezuka centrism functions as a corrective gesture, rather than an attempt to ground one’s critical work in that of a widely recognized master.  In fact, Helen McCarthy, as late as 2009, laments in the preface to her The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga, “the man who was largely responsible for the Japanese boom in comics after World War II [i.e. Tezuka]… remains almost unknown in the English-speaking world.”[5]

Though Takeuchi was originally, as Berndt says, a professor of children’s literature, his engagement with Tezuka’s manga corpus goes back at least as far as his graduate thesis, “Tetsuwan Atomu ni okeru Atomu-zō no hensen” (“The Changing Figure of Astro in Astro Boy”).  Moreover, his first book devoted solely to manga was a collection of essays titled Tezuka Osamu-ron (On Tezuka Osamu).  Tezuka is for Takeuchi both a personal and professional object of interest.  What is more, what “Tezuka” means within that professional framework is far more than a particular artist or a body of work that artist signifies.[6]  While Takeuchi may not explicitly make this claim himself, nevertheless, his criticism can be used to show that within Japanese language manga studies “Tezuka” is not merely an artist or body of work but a discourse unto himself, a site upon which a number of larger critical concerns play out with the somewhat ironic effect of subsuming even recent critiques of the Tezuka mythos into a broadly based Tezuka-centrism, which Thomas Lamarre has referred to as the “long, unending Tezuka.”[7]

Though not exclusively devoted to questions of form, On Tezuka does quite consistently raise them.  Yet, because the specifics of Takeuchi’s formal analysis do not necessarily lead to an understanding of how they are situated discursively, it is worthwhile examining the premises he works from, and in this he is quite explicit: “Tezuka Osamu is the manga artist [most] indicative of the postwar.”[8]  He goes on to note that, when he was young, many children just like him were reading Tezuka’s manga, indicating the personal/professional overlap in Takeuchi’s engagement with manga.  He also continues by taking a meta-critical jab at the generations of manga critics to precede him, one that might look harmless enough to an uninformed reader:

From the ‘60s onward, gekiga and a new type of shōjo manga were in fashion, and for a moment the times seemed far off from that world [of my childhood], but there was one manga artist at the heart of things throughout. That artist was, of course, Tezuka Osamu.[9]

This casual reference to the “detached” ‘60s and ‘70s concerns not merely the changing trends of what kinds of manga were popular when but also how the earliest generations of manga critics, according to a particular history,[10] tended to valorize gekiga artists in accordance with a more, though not exclusively, socio-culturally oriented mode of manga criticism.  As CJ Suzuki has noted, Ishiko Junzō and the other contributors to Mangashugi gravitated toward artists such as Shirato Sanpei, Tsuge Yoshiharu, Mizuki Shigeru, and Tatsumi Yoshihiro.  Similarly, Tsurumi Shunsuke, in both his English and Japanese language criticism generally had far more to say about Shirato and Mizuki than Tezuka.  Not that Tsurumi ignored Tezuka’s manga entirely, but he regarded them as no more or less important than any other’s.  For Takeuchi to claim that Tezuka lay at the heart of it all is to meta-critically reassert the artist’s dominance over against those who in the earlier history of manga studies placed him on a level playing field.

With this in mind, I would like to closely examine the final On Tezuka essay, “Eiga-teki shuhō · saikō” (“Cinematism, Reconsidered”).  The essay takes as its primary text Tezuka’s 1947 collaboration with Sakai Shichima, Shintakarajima (New Treasure Island), which, while not Tezuka’s first manga, has historically been the locus for a number of arguments regarding Tezuka’s innovations as well as what manga became in the postwar era.  The essay begins by recounting and deconstructing the myths surrounding this text, in particular how these myths were used by critics to build up an unnecessary pre-eminence for Tezuka as the originator of story manga.  This deconstruction is achieved not by simply lodging counter arguments against elements of this mythos but by referencing and reconstructing a critical discourse in which the objections to the myths play out.  With regard to layout, Takeuchi invokes Kure Tomofusa’s critique of the notion that New Treasure Island was the first to use a three tiered panel layout by showing how Shishido Sakō’s Supīdo tarō (Speed Boy) had done so in the 1930s.[11]  For Takeuchi, the important question is not whether Tezuka was the first or a major practitioner of manga cinematism but rather what the nature of that cinematic expression is.  He then turns to the meat of his own argument, wherein he demonstrates the similarities between page layouts in New Treasure Island to the film technique of montage.[12]

Of course, all scholarship is, to a certain extent, meta-critical, the literature review in particular being regarded as key to situating one’s research, but how Takeuchi places others within the discourse on Tezuka and within manga studies in general is slightly different from what one sees in the main with academic research.  In the years since Takeuchi’s collection of essays, the Tezuka mythos has taken a number of additional hits.  Nakano Haruyuki’s critical biography of Sakai Shichima, Nazo no mangaka Sakai Shichima: “Shintakarajima” densetsu no hikari to kage (Mysterious Manga Artist Sakai Shichima: The Light and Shadow of the New Treasure Island Legend), asserts the likelihood that Sakai had far more to do with the production of the comic than simply a story outline.  He claims Sakai’s background as a storyboard artist for animated films is a far better explanation for the “cinematic” qualities of New Treasure Island’s layout and artwork than the assertion that Tezuka derived a manga cinematism simply from observing films as projected.  Ryan Holmberg has also shown how Tezuka and Sakai likely worked directly from a 1942 Disney comic, Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold!

The most concerted and important deconstruction of the Tezuka mythos—and the most relevant to Takeuchi’s own work—in recent years is Itō Gō’s provocatively titled Tezuka izu deddo: hirakareta manga hyōgen-ron e (Tezuka is Dead: Toward an Enlightened Theory of Manga Expression).  Itō’s critique of Takeuchi in Tezuka is Dead as well as Takeuchi’s reading of Itō in his independent journal (dōjinshi) Biranji are worth treating in detail, but my concern here is what happens to critical work, especially that which attempts to “get over” what precedes it, when read into the ordinary scholarly practice of situating one’s own work with regard to that of others.  Perhaps, then, it is better to return to Natsume’s retrospective on Where is Tezuka Osamu?:

A mythologizing discourse characterizing Tezuka’s manga as a sort of postwar “god” had already [begun] to take shape in the early 1960s, and this book was in part an attempt to assess the truth of such claims at the level of concrete manga expression.  Tezuka’s 1946 book Shin takarajima (New Treasure Island), based on a story by Sakai Shichima, is often characterized as the work that introduced “cinematic techniques” to manga, reforming postwar manga.  Was this actually true?  If so, how was it possible?[13]

What Natsume makes clear is how even a polemical critique of the “mythologizing discourse” of Tezuka as the manga no kami-sama, “god of manga,” must engage in assessing the truth value of that discourse, must become part of the history of a discourse that, even if one manages to strip a particular object (for instance, Tezuka and his body of work) of its absolute importance, one may have done little to strip the discourse surrounding it of its pride of place within manga studies.  In fact, as Takeuchi’s own appropriation of critiques of the Tezuka mythos shows, any concerted engagement with Tezuka as manga locus, be it polemical or not, runs the risk of becoming another precursor, another literature review, to the same old arguments.


Berndt, Jaqueline, 2008. “Considering Manga Discourse: Location, Ambiguity, Historicity,” in MacWilliams, Mark W. ed., Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, pp. 295-334.

Gravett, Paul, 2004. Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics. New York: Collins Design.

Groensteen, Thierry, 1991. L’univers des mangas: Une introduction à la bande dessinée japonaise (The Universe of Manga: An Introduction to Japanese Comics). Tournai: Casterman.

Holmberg, Ryan.

— 2012. “The Bottom of a Bottomless Barrel: Introducing Akahon Manga” in The Comics Journal, January 5, 2012. Accessed August 10, 2014,

— 2012. “Manga Finds Pirate Gold: The case of New Treasure Island” in The Comics Journal, October 1, 2012.  Accessed August 10, 2014,

Itō, Gō, 2005. Tezuka izu deddo: hirakareta manga hyōgenron e (Tezuka is Dead: Toward an Enlightened Theory of Manga Expression). Tokyo: NTT Shuppan.

Kinsella, Sharon, 2000. Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Lamarre, Thomas, 2010. “Speciesism, Part II: Tezuka Osamu and the Multispecies Ideal” in Mechademia vol. 5: Fanthropologies. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 51-85.

McCarthy, Helen, 2009. The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga. New York: Abrams ComicArts.

McCloud, Scott, 1993. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press.

Miyamoto, Hirohito, 2009. “Rekishi kenkyū” in Natsume, Fusanosuke and Takeuchi Osamu, eds., 2009. Manga-gaku nyūmon (Introduction to Manga Studies). Tokyo: Minerva Shobō, pp. 96-101.

Nakano, Haruyuki, 2007. Nazo no mangaka Sakai Shichima: “Shintakarajima” densetsu no hikari to kage (The Mysterious Manga Artist Sakai Shichima: The Light and Shadow of the Legend of “New Treasure Island”). Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō.

Natsume, Fusanosuke.

— 1992. Tezuka Osamu wa doko ni iru (Where is Tezuka Osamu?). Tokyo: Chikuma Library.

— 2013. “Where is Tezuka?: A Theory of Manga Expression” trans. Matthew Young in Mechademia 8: Tezuka’s Manga Life, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 155-171.

Natsume, Fusanosuke and Takeuchi Osamu, eds., 2009. Manga-gaku nyūmon (Introduction to Manga Studies). Tokyo: Minerva Shobō.

Ōtsuka, Eiji, 2013. Mikkī no shoshiki: sengo manga no senjika kigen (The Form of Mickey: The Wartime Origins of Postwar Manga). Tokyo: Kadokawa Sōsho.

Schodt, Frederik L., 1983. Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. New York: Kondansha International.

Suzuki, CJ. “Manga Studies #4: Traversing Art and Manga: Ishiko Junzō’s Writings on Manga/Gekiga” in Comics Forum, August 11, 2014. Accessed August 17, 2014,

Takeuchi, Osamu.

— 1989. Manga to jidō bungaku no “aida” (“Between” Manga and Children’s Literature). Tokyo: Dai Nippon Tosho.

— 1992. Tezuka Osamu-ron (On Tezuka Osamu). Tokyo: Heibonsha.

— 1995. Sengo manga 50nen-shi (Fifty Year History of Postwar Manga). Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō.

— 1995. Kodomo manga no kyojin-tachi: Rakuten kara Tezuka made (Giants of Children’s Manga: From Rakuten to Tezuka). Tokyo: San’ichi Shobō.

— 2005. Manga hyōgen-gaku nyūmon (Introduction to the Study of Manga Expression). Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō.

— 2009. “Manga kenkyū no ayumi” (“A Walk Through Manga Studies”) in Natsume, Fusanosuke and Takeuchi Osamu, eds., 2009. Manga-gaku nyūmon (Introduction to Manga Studies). Tokyo: Minerva Shobō, pp. 248-257.

Takeuchi, Osamu and Koyama Masahiro, eds., 2006. Anime e no hen’yō: gensaku to anime to no bimyō na kankei (Adaptation to Anime: The Subtle Relationship Between Anime and Original). Tokyo: Gendai Shokan.

Takeuchi, Osamu, Yonezawa Yoshihiro, and Yamada Tomoko, eds., 2006. Gendai manga hakubutsukan 1945-2005 (The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Manga 1945-2005). Tokyo: Shōgakkan.

Theisen, Nicholas, 2013. “13a. The Problematic Gendering of Shōnen Manga” in What is Manga?, May 27, 2013. Accessed August 10, 2014,

Tsurumi, Shunsuke, 1991. Manga no dokusha to shite (As a Manga Reader…). Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō.

Yomota, Inuhiko, 1994. Manga genron (Principles of Manga). Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō.

Nicholas Theisen is a research fellow with the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Iowa. His research is interested broadly with textual and formalist issues in poetry, popular music, and comics, and he has written articles on the comics of Dave Sim, Tezuka Osamu, and Miyazaki Hayao. He is currently at work completing a book project which reconfigures comics as a hermeneutic practice rather than as a visual form. He is also the creator of the blog What is Manga?

[1] Natsume, “Where is Tezuka? A Theory of Manga Expression,” 91-2.

[2] Berndt, 302.

[3] In the context of manga, “cinematism” seems to refer to a reflection of certain cinematographic techniques (e.g. montage, close-ups, panning shots, etc.) as adapted to the visual milieu of comics.  However, this more limited sense is often complicated by reference to any number of narrative modes that are not specific to film—and, in fact, ignore how film borrows narratologically from literature—but are, nevertheless, discussed in cinematic terms.

[4] Groensteen, 64.  Translations are, unless otherwise noted, my own.

[5] McCarthy, 8.

[6] It should be kept in mind that Tezuka was very much an auteur in the sense that word is used in film studies: a large number of manga and anime fall under his “authorship” but are, in reality, the product of many more or less invisible hands.

[7] Lamarre, 50.

[8] Takeuchi, Tezuka Osamu-ron, 7.

[9] ibid.

[10] The most common story of the history of manga studies discourse, beginning with Tsurumi Shunsuke, tends to overlook the programmatic and occasionally theoretical claims of pre-war manga artists such as Kitazawa Rakuten and Okamoto Ippei.  For a description of the “four generations” of manga studies, c.f. Berndt, 2008, 303-304.

[11] On Tezuka, 225.

[12] ibid., 234.

[13] Natsume, “Where is Tezuka? A Theory of Manga Expression,” 90.

To read more from Comics Forum’s Manga Studies column, click here.

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Posted by on 2014/10/08 in Manga Studies


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News Review: September 2014


South Africa


GRAPHIC RADICALS: At the Cutting Edge of Comic Art, is an exhibition that will take place in Muizenberg, Cape Town, from the 3rd October. Link (English, WG)




There is a call for papers for a collection entitled, The Canadian Alternative: Canadian Cartoonists, Comics, and Graphic Novels. Submissions are due by the 30th April 2015. Link (05/09/2014, English, WG)

United States


Based on total comic book sales invoiced for August, DC’s Batman #34 ranked first according to Diamond News. Marvel Comics’ Amazing Spider-Man #5 and Original Sin #7 ranked second and third respectively. Link (English, MB)

Based on total graphic novel sales invoiced in August, Marvel’s Thanos Infinity Revelation and Deadpool vs. Carnage ranked first and third according to Diamond News. DC’s Fables Volume 20: Camelot ranked second. Link (English, MB)

Dynamite Digital announced that Bitcoin, the virtual currency, will now be an accepted form of payment, joining traditional forms of payment options. Link (17/09/2014, English, MB)


The University of Chicago has posted a position for Assistant Professor in 20th & 21st Century Fiction and Narrative Theory, which mentions seeking scholars working on comics and video game studies. Candidates must submit a cover letter, curriculum vitae and dissertation abstract by the 3rd November. Link (12/09/2014, English, MB)


The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts is accepting proposals for their 26th annual conference being held in Orlando, Florida, between the 18th and 22nd March 2015. 400 word abstracts are due by the 31st October. Link (English, MB)

The Comics Arts Conference organisers have announced the submission deadlines for both Wondercon Anaheim (held between the 3rd and 5th April 2015), and San Diego Comic-Con conference (being held between the 9th and 12th July 2015). Proposals of between 100 and 200 words are due by the 1st December for Wondercon, and the 1st March 1 for San Diego. Link (English, MB)

The University of Florida has announced their 12th annual Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels with the theme of “Comics Read but Seldom Seen: Diversity and Representation in Comics and Related Media”. Proposals are due by the 1st January for the conference, which is being held in Gainesville, Florida between the 10th and 12th April. Link (02/09/2014, English, MB)

ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies is currently seeking manuscript reviewers with expertise in a variety of areas in comics studies. Link (13/09/2014, English, WG)

Cord A. Scott’s book, Comics and Conflict, has been published through US Naval Institute Press. Link (English, WG)

There is a call for papers for Marvel Feature Films edited by Robert Moses Peaslee, Matthew McEniry, and Robert G. Weiner. Abstracts are due by the 15th November. Link (17/09/2014, English, WG)




There is a leaflet for the Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme 2015/2016. There are opportunities for funded places to study a PhD in comics in the Department of English at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Interested candidates are urged to contact Francisco Veloso ( Link (English, WG)




Sfar So Far: Identity, History, Fantasy, and Mimesis in Joann Sfar’s Graphic Novels, by Fabrice Leroy, has recently been published through Leuven University Press. Link (English, WG)



Astérix co-creator, Albert Uderzo, and his daughter Sylvie have ended their seven-year legal feud amicably, agreeing to drop their respective lawsuits. Link (26/09/2014, English, LTa)

French newspaper L’Humanité is preparing to relaunch its BD magazine Pif Gadget (1969-1993; 2004-2009) in the coming months. Link (12/09/2014, French, LTa)


Franco-German TV network ARTE has shown an adaptation of Frederik Peeters’ Pilules Bleues. Link (01/09/2014, French, LTa)


There is a call for papers for the conference, Voyages, the theme for the Sixth International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference / Ninth International Bande Dessinée Society Conference. Abstracts are due by the 31st December for the conference which takes place in Paris between the 22nd and 27th June. Link (23/09/2014, English, WG)



Comicfestival Hamburg is taking place from the 2nd until the 5th October; guests include Amanda Vähämäki, Luke Pearson, and Mawil. Link (01/09/2014, German, MdlI)

An exhibition of the winners of this year’s Max-und-Moritz-Preis is shown in Wiedensahl from the 14th September 2014 until the 24th May 2015. Link (08/09/2014, German, MdlI)

The exhibition, “Streich auf Streich – 150 Jahre Jahre Max und Moritz. Deutschsprachige Comics von Wilhelm Busch bis heute”, is shown again in Oberhausen from the 14th September 2014 until the 18th January 2015. Link (08/09/2014, German, MdlI)

The award, “Comicbuchpreis 2015 der Berthold Leibinger Stiftung”, goes to Birgit Weyhe for her comic Madgermanes. Link (10/09/2014, German, MdlI)


A workshop on “Empirical Approaches to Comics” took place in Berlin on the 20th September. Link (04/09/2014, English, MdlI)

A lecture series on holocaust representations, including two lectures on comics by Ralf Palandt (23rd October) and Ole Frahm (6th November), is going to take place in Bochum. Link (15/09/2014, German, MdlI)



Various Irish comics creators were involved in panels at DICE 2014, which took place in Dublin on the 27th and 28th September. Link (06/09/2014, English, SC)



The Casa da Baía in Setúbal is hosting an exhibition titled “Portos em Banda Desenhada” (Ports in Comics), dedicated to port activity and the maritime world. The exhibition can be visited until the 19th October and is open daily, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Link (25/09/2014, Portuguese, RR)

From the 25th October until the 10th November, the city of Amadora is hosting the 25º Festival Internacional de Banda Desenhada 2014 (25th International Festival of Comics). Link (19/09/2014, Portuguese, RR)



Spaceman Books, a new publishing house specialising in comics associated to ECC, has been created. Link (05/09/2014, Spanish, EdRC)


The 4th edition of GRAF, the independent comics publishing festival, will take place in Madrid on the 14th and 15th November at Museo ABC (Madrid). Link (29/09/2014, Spanish, EdRC)

Issue 10 of DON, a free online magazine (available on App Store and Play Store), is integrally dedicated to comics and includes many interviews and selections of comics from international and Spanish authors. Link (09/09/2014, Spanish, EdRC)

The winners of the 14th edition of Dolmen’s Premios de la crítica (Critics’ prizes) have been announced. Link (15/09/2014, Spanish, EdRC)

The cultural magazine Jot Down has published “100 tebeos imprescincibles”, a guide to the 100 indispensable comics. Link (03/09/2014, Spanish, EdRC)

The exhibition Dibujar las meninas, which explores the creation of the graphic novel of the same name by Jabier Olivares y Santiago García, is being shown at Museo ABC (Madrid) from the 26th September until the 16th November. Link (26/09/2014, Spanish, EdRC)


A new edition of the Master de novela gráfica (Master in graphic novels) has been announced. Enrollment is open  until the 14th December this year, and the course will start on the 14th January 2015. Link (04/09/2014, Spanish, EdRC)


The book Breve historia del cómic, by Spanish comics specialist, Gerardo Vilches, has been published. Link (03/09/2014, Spanish, EdRC)



A comics exhibition titled “Bulles – in Blasen sprechen” is shown in Zurich from the 5th until the 19th October. Link (15/09/2014, German, MdlI)


Peter Gautschi and Christian Gasser are going to give a lecture on violence and history in comics at Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts on the 15th October. Link (20/09/2014, German, MdlI)



Southeast Asian Comics, an exhibition curated by CT Lim, will be at the The Proud Archivist – Library, London, between the 24th October and 2nd November. Link (English, LCT)


There is a call for papers for a Special Issue of the journal, South Asian Popular Culture, entitled “Graphic Novels and Visual Cultures in South Asia.” The editors welcome enquiries or proposals in the form of a 150-200 words abstract by the 14th November. Link (English, WG)

St. Mary’s University, London, is welcoming participants for workshops and a symposium focused on “Graphic Justices of the Future: Law and Jurisprudence in Futuristic Comics.” Link (16/09/2014, English, WG)




At the 2014 Small Press Expo (SPX), Australian comics creator Simon Hanselmann was nominated for the Ignatz Award for Outstanding Story. He was also ‘married to comics’ in a ceremony conducted by Gary Groth. Link 1 (English, ALM), Link 2 (English, ALM)

Creators representing Australia (and New Zealand) at SPX 2014 also include Matt Emery (Pikitia Press), Frank Candiloro (FrankenComics), Nicholas (NikNik) McIvor, Matthew Hoddy and Caitlin Major (Space Pyrates), and Alexis Sugden (AnimatorLex). Link (English, ALM)

Pikitia Press, a news site about Australian and New Zealand comics, has recently expanded its content to include a monthly review column. The reviews will be written by Philip Bentley, a judge of the national comics art awards, the Ledgers. Comics and zines can be sent in for critical review. Link (English, ALM)

Registration has now opened for the Australian Cartoonists Association 30th Annual Stanley Awards. “The Stanleys” will be held on the 14th and 15th of November, at the Menzies Hotel in Sydney. Link (English, ALM)


The Inkers and Thinkers Interdisciplinary Comics Symposium has released its Call for Papers for the 2015 conference. The theme is ‘The Alternative’, and as well as abstracts the organisers are seeking creative workshop proposals. The deadline for abstracts is the 15th October, and the deadline for workshop proposals is the 31st October. Link (English, ALM)

*                    *                    *


News Editor: Will Grady (

Correspondents: Michele Brittany (MB, North America), Enrique del Rey Cabero (EdRC, Spain), Shelley Culbertson (SC, Ireland), William Grady (WG, UK), Martin de la Iglesia (MdlI, Germany & Switzerland), Amy Louise Maynard (ALM, Australia), Renatta Rafaella (RR, Portugal), Lise Tannahill (LTa, France), Lim Cheng Tju (LCT, UK).

Click here for News Review correspondent biographies.

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Posted by on 2014/10/04 in News Review


EPIC THEMES IN AWESOME WAYS: How we made Asteroid Belter: The Newcastle Science Comic, and why it matters by Lydia Wysocki and Michael Thompson

Asteroid Belter Cover

1. Introduction

Asteroid Belter: The Newcastle Science Comic is a 44-page, newsprint, 10000 copy print run comic for the British Science Festival 2013 hosted by Newcastle University, England. It was produced as collaboration between a total of 76 artists, writers and scientists, led by our editorial team: Lydia Wysocki, Paul Thompson, Michael Thompson, Jack Fallows, Brittany Coxon and Michael Duckett. The comic sought to put university science research and concepts into the hands of children in a way that is meaningful, interesting, and inspiring to them. We did this by supporting scientists and comics creators to work together and increase each party’s understanding of the value of the other’s work. This article first outlines how we made Asteroid Belter, where we locate it in the wider field of comics, and then goes on to identify what we can and cannot show as evidence of its success.

2. What it is and how we made it

The foundations for Asteroid Belter were laid with the Paper Jam Comics Collective (PJCC), based in Newcastle upon Tyne. The PJCC formed as a social group for comics creators and fans in Newcastle to meet up and discuss comics and quickly became focused on creativity, both individually and as a group. There are many comparable comics groups across the UK (for example, the Manchester Comic Collective, the Bristol Comic Creators) and members soon began working together to create comics. The group has produced ten anthologies of varying degrees of professionalism on a range of themes, sold at events such as gallery launches, gigs and DIY markets.
Lydia Wysocki, a PJCC member and Newcastle University member of staff, was approached by the University’s Engagement team who were preparing to host the British Science Festival in 2013 (BSF13) to see if there would be any interest in working together to produce a comic as part of BSF13. The BSF, the British Science Association’s flagship event, is ‘one of Europe’s largest celebrations of science, engineering and technology’ (BSA 2014). The overall aim of the BSA is to advance the public understanding, accessibility and accountability of the sciences and engineering in the UK, with a broad view of which subjects are considered science. Whilst there are specific educational elements within the BSF, particularly its Young People’s Programme, it is not a direct extension of the National Curriculum in science and involves broad range of activities.

When Lydia brought the idea of a BSF13 comics project to PJCC it was met with enthusiasm. It was also clear that the structured nature of what would become Asteroid Belter in terms of project management, content, and presentation, meant this project was already different from PJCC’s participative nature. We decided to establish a special projects unit with invited members from PJCC. This meant we could work with Newcastle University to resource and deliver an ambitious anthology project, to establish a project management structure that would work for us, and to continue enjoying PJCC meetings.

Discussions with the Engagement team helped determine format and processes. Funding from Newcastle University’s Ignite small grants scheme was itself innovative as part of BSF13. As one of the first and largest projects funded in this way our project management was by necessity innovative, finding ways to work collaboratively and align this with NU’s reporting mechanisms. Choosing an anthology format meant we could include diverse styles (Smith, 2014) and content to increase the likelihood of readers engaging with at least some of the comic’s content as a pick ‘n’ mix approach. Establishing each page as a subproject maximised opportunities for many scientists and comics creators to have meaningful involvement in and ownership of the project. Staggered start dates for 8-week subprojects with editorial checkpoints mitigated risk around adherence to brief and deadlines. This structure helped us plan the time and skill commitment of Asteroid Belter and identify appropriate rates of pay against industry standards and Newcastle University’s pay scale. Sharing test printings with the Engagement team, and through them the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Executive Board, demonstrated our progress and aligned Asteroid Belter with Newcastle University structures. Our experience of comics projects helped us find suitable printers and work with them to quote for test and final printing costs.

We broke the initial tasks of beginning the comic into the following steps:

- Approach comics creators to see if they would be interested in taking part in the comic – this involves sending some individual invitations, and an open call promoted online and at Thought Bubble 2012.

- Discuss the project with scientists at a Newcastle based SUPER MASH UP event, where we gave a brief overview of how we saw the project working and gave an introduction to comics to those unfamiliar with the medium; we followed up by email and phone with contributors unable to take part in the SUPER MASH UP in person.

- Ask all scientists and comics creators (whether artists, writers, or sole creators) to fill in the same expression of interest form to give us an overview of their work and any initial ideas they might have.

- Match comics creators with scientists as page teams, and assign each team a page editor to establish communication between scientists and comics creators. This was done in editorial “stables”, with each page editor having an overview of 5 or 6 pages.

As a pilot project we worked with three comics creators to produce a three-page activity pack to be distributed to Newcastle University’s partner schools in preparation for BSF13. The school activity pack was worthwhile in its own right, as a set of worksheets exploring the difference between science fact and science fiction, and as a pilot phase for our processes and outputs. Feedback from schools helped adjust guidelines for artists/writers. This feedback continued in reviewing draft artwork and test printings among editors and with one editor’s class of 8 year olds. The school activity pack was also important to the participative elements of Asteroid Belter: the third worksheet was a comics creation challenge, the prize for which was publication in our comic. We also held an open call for online submissions to be shared through our blog, to invite contributions from creators unable to take part in the printed comic. On our launch day we took over Newcastle City Library with structured comics workshops and drop-in activities for children and families, and ran pre-launch comics making activities at BBC The One Show’s summer festival in Gateshead. This participative focus was important to us. We agree with Green (2013) and Williams (2013) that both reading and creating comics matters, particularly for students’ understanding of medical issues: Green’s point about students becoming ‘more careful observers’ (Green 2013, p. 474) and Williams’ discussion of the accessibility of comics as medical narrative (Williams 2013, p. 27) are particularly relevant here. We extend this to our broader scientific as well as medical content, and beyond students and health professionals to the wider public.

It is worth noting that whilst some scientists involved in the project had used comics in their work before, often as a tool of public engagement, the majority had not had this experience. Some comics creators had worked on commissioned educational projects before, but again this was a minority. In neither case did we specify that contributors had to have worked on comparable projects before, and our contributors included undergraduate and postgraduate student scientists and artists/writers. EPIC THEMES in AWESOME WAYS was our terminology for mixing huge themes in science research (including explosions, time and travel, and hidden messages) with comics structures and tropes (including biographies, stories, and diagrams). This helped researchers connect with comics creators who otherwise had little shared professional language (Mercer 2000), to generate, maintain, and channel awesome levels of enthusiasm.

From the start of this science comics project we were clear that the science and the comics were of equal value. We are aware of other projects using comics (for example Magreet de Heer’s Science: a Discovery in Comics, and Leeds University’s Dreams of a Low Carbon Future), as a format to communicate science. Asteroid Belter is fundamentally different because we wanted to see what happens when comics and science collide: neither the comics nor the science element is in service to the other. Treating each page as a sub-project maximised the opportunities for many contributors to have meaningful involvement in and ownership of the anthology. Scientists were involved throughout the project first as sources of inspiration and information, and on an ongoing basis as consultants for the accuracy of each comic. This also gave comics creators scope to explore a manageable piece of science research rather than attempting to fit their contribution into a longer narrative. Within each scientist/comics creator team it was the comics creator who led the creative process with the editor keeping this on track with the larger aims of the anthology: this required trust from all members of the project team. This structure was our way of ensuring a final comic that was a comic, not an illustration of research findings or a colourful textbook (figure 1).

Figure 1 Ian Mayor and Will Campbell, extract from ‘Time Travel is Awesome’ in Asteroid Belter: The Newcastle Science Comic. Newcastle: 2013.

Figure 1 Ian Mayor and Will Campbell, extract from ‘Time Travel is Awesome’ in Asteroid Belter: The Newcastle Science Comic. Newcastle: 2013.

The page editor role was an interesting one. We remain aware of key issues in the comics field, particularly around diversity in our choice of contributors and the content and characters they produced (Havstad 2014). Specific issues we discussed in editorial meetings included gender, race, age, dis/ability, and professional experience in publishing comics. We did not set quotas for who should participate or what they should create, other than specifying which scientific research each page would cover. We do not claim Asteroid Belter as a flawless example applying this in practice, but are proud of the comic we created and confident that we did our best to understand and act on issues within this project.

3. Our evidence that Asteroid Belter worked

Asteroid Belter is a project firmly rooted in comics practice. We are mindful of relevant research and theory from comics scholarship (as cited in our list of references), and also from our backgrounds in librarianship and education. Whilst aware of comics projects set up as research projects with clear ontological frameworks and research questions, we cannot overstate that we chose a well-informed focus on practice. This limits what evidence we can present of Asteroid Belter’s success. We did not set out to test a hypothesis. Comics scholarship includes many calls for increased evidence, particularly statistical evidence, of the extent to which comics work in education (for example, Caldwell 2012). Tempting as it is to look back and construct an argument for what we could have proven, we will instead present the evidence that emerged from our project and highlight what this does and does not reveal.

It is also worth noting that much of the ‘comics in education’ debates and literature focus on formal education systems, as schools. Moeller (2011) is a particularly strong advocate for the inclusion of graphic novels into the school curriculum. Spiegel and colleagues’ (2013) focus on engaging teenagers with science emphasises a need to ‘engage all teenagers, even those with low science identity’ (Spiegel et al. 2013, p. 2309), but their study focusses on students enrolled in ninth and tenth grade biology classes. We respect the work of these examples but note that they are all bounded by the structures and limitations of formal education systems. This is not to belittle the effort involved in including comics in formal education systems: Laycock’s (2013) discussion of how librarians and teachers have needed to be ‘opportunistic and largely self-driven in their acquisition of knowledge and skills regarding graphic novels’ highlights this. The School Library Journal has a dedicated graphic novel section that supports this professional community, particularly through the work of Brigid Alverson.

Asteroid Belter’s position as part of BSF13, not within a school system, meant we went outside the existing UK school system. We also considered what might be possible beyond existing school structures, informed by more radical educational thinkers (Neill 1970; Vygotsky 1978). This is ideologically interesting but, at a more practical level (and resisting a diversion into discussion of schools and other forms of education), makes evaluation of Asteroid Belter tricky. It was not possible to track which individuals read our comic and as we will show, difficulties in identifying the demographics of our readers make us unwilling to use an artificial matrix to select a sample group. This section first considers what evidence we gathered as evidence of participation, public engagement, and readership, then presents considerations relevant to what readers and other key individuals took from the project.

A. Evidence of participation in creating the comic

We received 112 expressions of interest in participating in creating the comic and were able to invite 74 people to take part in creating the comic, all of whom are credited in in print and online. We were easily able to find replacements for the two comics creators who withdrew from the project because of other commitments; no scientists dropped out of the project. As this was our first large-scale edited anthology project, and without access to data on comparable anthology projects’ participation rates, we do not know how these numbers compare to the field. We were pleased to receive interest from more than enough people to create a substantial anthology. It is worth noting that our call for contributors was open to all, regardless of whether we knew them prior to this project or whether they had previously undertaken comics work that was educational, based on science, or published (we were later asked by our funders to prioritise contributors from the North East of England). Receiving expressions of interest from people we did not know is evidence that word spread about our project.

The fact that we delivered a collaboratively-produced comic is evidence that our project succeeded, and this is further supported by positive comments we received from contributors about their involvement in the process of creating Asteroid Belter, for example:

It is a really fantastic project, and really well managed too! [We] are proud to be a part of it, and I hope it continues to be a feature of the BSF for years to come!

and comments from scientists who had not previously been involved in making comics, for example:

I think it’s fantastic and had to struggle hard to stop reading it this morning, so I could do some work.

Academic staff involvement in public engagement projects is typically part of a diverse and full workload, so our evidence of success is the fact that the project delivered a completed comic and that this was received well by participants

B. Evidence of public engagement

The overall evaluation report of BSF13 covered all aspects of the Festival and included interviews with adults whose children took part in our Asteroid Belter launch day events. The report’s overall findings were positive, for example that 94% of visitors [respondents] indicated that they thought the quality of the content of their event was ‘Excellent’ or ‘Good’. [587 individuals (25% of total visitors to ticketed events) who submitted a completed questionnaire; number of total unique visitors was in the region of 19000]. We are cautious in how far we can apply these headline findings to our comic. The fact that Asteroid Belter was mentioned without prompting evaluation interviewees and is noted in this overall evaluation is positive news, particularly as this was the first time a comic was created as part of the BSF. The BSF13 evaluation’s necessarily high-level focus on footfall and satisfaction means we now turn to other indicators for a closer look at who read Asteroid Belter and what they said about it.

C. Evidence of readership

Six months after our September 2013 launch, approximately 9850 of the 10000 printed copies of Asteroid Belter have been distributed. Some two thirds of these were given to participants in the Young People’s Programme of the BSF13. A further 1250 copies were picked up from distribution stands at Newcastle City Library, 600 copies distributed at Thought Bubble and Comics Forum Conference 2013, over 250 copies at Travelling Man Newcastle (and more through other comics retailers in the UK), and others in response to requests from local schools and youth organisations for additional copies. Asteroid Belter is free to read online and has been accessed 2,487 times since its launch. We recognise that giving away a free comic means we are not able to compare this to sales figures of other titles. We also note that we did not struggle to distribute these copies, and in many cases were asked for additional copies.

Having shown that Asteroid Belter found readers, the demographics of this readership are difficult to identify. Demographic data in the BSF13 evaluation report includes a note that approximately half of respondents had a professional reason for attending BSF13 (as students, teachers, or science sector professionals), with the other half of respondents identified as individuals with a general interest in science. Whilst this points towards a self-selecting audience group of people interested in science or otherwise connected with education or NU, this is not to detract from the response from our readers which was overwhelmingly positive.

These attendees are not representative of the general public, but nor are they a full picture of our readers. Getting university researchers to connect with 8-13 year old children as a valid and viable audience for their research was important as this age group is key to, yet often overlooked by, student recruitment and Widening Participation agendas. Though primarily a public engagement project this link with Widening Participation matters. Of the local primary and secondary schools who were given copies of Asteroid Belter at BSF13 and/or whose teachers contacted us for additional copies, some were in postcodes in the lowest quintile of participation in HE (POLAR, 2012). Before getting carried away praising Asteroid Belter’s success in engaging young people from low participation neighbourhoods with university-level science research (Newcastle University is recognised nationally for its work on widening participation in HE) we must note that other schools were in postcodes in the highest quintile of participation in HE. This is a complex picture.

4. Why this matters

We have established that Asteroid Belter engaged scientists and comics creators in the creation of a science comic, with both science and comics equally valued, and that the successful delivery of this project engaged members of the public in science and comics. We now turn to consider what readers took from the comic.

The communication of scientific concepts and research to readers is central to Asteroid Belter. That said, we were clear that Asteroid Belter should not be an educational textbook disguised as a comic. We made a conscious decision not to identify specific learning outcomes either for the anthology as a whole or for each individual comic, instead focussing on exploring what would happen when science and comics, as one of our editors put it, ‘collided’. This suggests two possibilities: a focus on learning outcomes and a focus on satisfaction.
Work by Ching and Fook (2013), Spiegel (2013), and others, has evaluated the effectiveness of comics they commissioned to communicate specific learning outcomes. This focus on comics as a method of communication suited their purposes but would not be directly transferable to our practice-based project. Asteroid Belter’s broad target age range, diverse science content, and deliberate lack of alignment with the National Curriculum priorities meant we could at best have tested whether a sample of our readers said that they had learned ‘some stuff’. This would be far from satisfying. Developing and validating effective research instruments to address this more systematically was beyond the scope of this practice-based project and, for us, could well have detracted from the fun of making and reading the comic. Quantifying the amount of enthusiasm conveyed by the comic would point towards a focus on readers’ professed satisfaction with the comic, which in turn raises questions around the validity of how to ask young readers “do you like this free comic we made for you?” With the appropriate rigour this could however be a fascinating area for further research, whether academic or market research, but was not the focus of our project.

A perennial issue in education research is that of whose opinions are valued. Is it children, parents, educators, or others who are best placed to decide whether a (young) person is learning? Educational experiments with child-led schools (Neill, 1970) and self-organised learning (Mitra and Rana, 2001) are interesting counterpoints to curricula prescribed by experts and governments. For brevity, we summarise our view on these educational debates as follows: young people’s views on their learning are valid, and the role of more experienced others (Vygotsky 1978) in guiding their learning is important. In this context we note that we received unsolicited positive comments from the Service Manager (Children and Young People) of Newcastle Libraries, the Education Director of the British Science Association, and the Head of Quality in Learning and Teaching at Newcastle University. These are all individuals whose roles are relevant to our project: their opinions are encouraging and we are grateful for their support, and if we had been conducting a research project we would have probed their opinions further. We are particularly happy about having seen children reading Asteroid Belter and drawing their own comics (figure 2) – and frustrated that, having spotted children doing this, the official photographer had to interrupt them to ask their parents to sign photo release forms, then ask children to pose exactly as they had been. This email from the parent of our first reader is something we are particularly proud of, so is something we share here both to show off and to indicate the richness of data that might be available for others to investigate:

Just a note to tell you how much [my daughter] absolutely LOVED the comic. Seriously loved it! She’s just gone five and I wondered if the content might lose her a bit but I was wrong! We read it from cover to cover on the metro coming home and she had lots of questions about tricky things like cancer cells but at the end she exclaimed ‘mammy that was fascinating!’ Now that’s endorsement! She wriggled through Disney’s Monsters University earlier in the day but was glued to your comic. A scientist in the making I hope!

Figure 2 photo of children drawing at our launch day events at Newcastle City Library (photo courtesy of Newcastle University).

Figure 2 photo of children drawing at our launch day events at Newcastle City Library (photo courtesy of Newcastle University).

We earlier noted questions around the validity of asking children whether they liked our comic. Future research to investigate whether our readers went on to study and work in science and science communication could be illuminating, particularly if we were able to compare this to regional and national data on work and study. All this however assumes academic progress as an indicator of engagement with science: the BSF13 evaluation report’s category of ‘individuals with a general interest in science’ notes that engagement with science can be distinct from work or study in the field. There are further questions of the extent to which we could attribute any findings to Asteroid Belter. We also note that aspects of the BSA, City Library, and Newcastle University’s work necessitate a focus on marketing and footfall. Similarly, whilst we appreciate our positive reviews from the comics press (we were interviewed by Graphixia and Comics Beat, and reviewed by Forbidden Planet and Starburst Magazine), we cannot equate these to research evaluation of our project. Whilst pursuing this as research could be fascinating, our approach is to be aware of these larger issues as we focus on the practice of making comics.

5. Conclusion

The Asteroid Belter project has been an enjoyable one, and has raised questions and opportunities for further research. Planning and editing the comic was approached in a thorough fashion, and resulted in a finished product produced to professional standards and contributors who were paid accordingly for their work. As our project was focussed on comics practice it is difficult to draw firm conclusions about its educational value. There are encouraging signs that Asteroid Belter was received positively by its intended audience of 8-13 year olds, their families and teachers, and also by comics readers and creators, and colleagues in key educational roles. We have demonstrated that there is an audience for science comics in which both science research and comics are equally valued, rather than more prevalent models in which comics are a vehicle for the delivery of science. Our future projects will take into account the issues included in this article, and we invite others to make use of our experience.


BSA: British Science Association [website], ‘About the British Science Festival.’

Caldwell, J. (2012). ‘Information comics: An overview.’ Professional Communication Conference paper, Orlando, FL. Available online:

Ching, H.S., and Fook, F.S. (2013). ‘Effects of multimedia-based graphic novel presentation on critical thinking among students of different learning approaches.’ Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technologies, 12 (4), pp. 56-66.

Flo-culture (2014). British Science Festival Newcastle 2013: Evaluation report. Newcastle University and the British Science Association. Available online:

Green, M.J. (2013). ‘Teaching with comics: A course for fourth-year medical students’ Journal of Medical Humanities, 34, pp. 471-476.

Havstad, J. (2014). ‘Using comics to teach Philosophy, inclusively.’ Comics Forum, available online:

Laycock, D. (2013). ‘Keep watering the rocks.’ Comics Forum, available online:

Mercer, N. (2000). Words and minds: how we use language to think together. London: Routledge.

Mitra, S., and Rana, V. (2001). ‘Children and the internet: experiments with minimally invasive education in India’. British Journal of Educational Technology, 32 (2), pp. 221-232.

Moeller, R.A. (2011) ‘“Aren’t these boy books?”: High school students’ readings of gender in graphic novels.’, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 54 (7) pp. 476-484.

Neill, A.S. (1970). Summerhill: A radical approach to education [New Impression edition]. London: Penguin.

Participation of Local Areas [POLAR], (2012). Map of young participation areas [online map]. Available online:

Smith, P. (2014). ‘Maus in the Indonesian classroom’. Comics Forum, available online:

Spiegel, A.N., McQuillan, J., Halpin, P., Matuk, C., and Diamond, J. (2013). ‘Engaging teenagers with science through comics.’ Research in Science Education, 43, pp. 2309-2326.

Ujiie, J & Krashen, S. (1996) Comic book reading, reading enjoyment and pleasure reading among middle class and chapter 1 middle school students. Available at:

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. [eds. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S Scribner, E. Souberman]. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press.

Williams, I.C.M. (2012). ‘Graphic medicine: comics as medical narrative.’ Medical Humanities, 38, pp. 21-27.


From Random House to Rehab: Julia Wertz, The Small Press, Auteurism and Alternative Comics by Paddy Johnston

Brooklyn-based autobiographical cartoonist Julia Wertz published her first graphic novel, Drinking at the Movies, through Three Rivers Press, an imprint of Random House, during a brief period which she depicts in her second book, The Infinite Wait, as something of a minor boom in interest in comics from mainstream book publishers. However, once this period was over and the sales of Drinking at the Movies had proved lower than expected (in the words of Wertz’s publisher, ’these numbers would be great if it was with a smaller comics press, but since it’s with a major publisher whose standards are much higher…’) (Wertz 2012: 91), Wertz found herself dropped from her publisher. The Infinite Wait was published in 2012 by Koyama Press, a Canadian small press. Wertz is more comfortable with this arrangement, as evidenced by her autobiographical stories’ portrayals of events. Drawing herself writing to Annie Koyama, publisher of Koyama Press, she says ‘I just want to be with my people,’ (Wertz 2012: 93) the implication being that mainstream book publishers, despite their ability to pay her enough money to enable full-time cartooning, are not a home for the work of an alternative cartoonist. This article will explore the relationship between small presses and alternative comics, with Wertz’s two graphic novels and their publishing background as a case study, examining Wertz’s above implication that her work is best suited to being published with a small press.

Drinking at the Movies is a typical alternative autobiographical comic. It tells the story of Wertz’s first year in New York, moving over from a mostly comfortable life in San Francisco for a change of scene, a period in which she was also breaking into the world of alternative comics and small presses with her first book, The Fart Party, published by Baltimore-based comic shop and small press Atomic Books in 2007. The majority of Drinking at the Movies is composed of short anecdotes, punctuated with acerbic and often puerile humour, even when dealing with serious subjects such as divorce, alcohol abuse, financial difficulty and health problems. In its candid portrayal of trauma and heavy subject matter, Wertz’s work draws upon existing traditions of graphic memoir as established by the works of Art Spiegelman and Alison Bechdel (to name but two of many cartoonists), but doesn’t take itself too seriously. The book ends with Wertz settling in New York permanently, and The Infinite Wait, in part, picks up where Drinking at the Movies ends and covers the transition to Koyama Press.

The front page of Koyama Press’ website states that its ‘mandate is to promote and support a wide range of emerging and established artists. Projects include comics, art books and zines.’ (Koyama, 2014). A search on the ‘Wayback Machine’ internet archive [1] (2014) reveals that this mandate was placed on the site in 2013; until this point, the homepage’s text read ‘Koyama Press was founded in 2007 to sponsor projects with emerging artists. The rationale behind the enterprise is to fund a project with the intention to promote the artist. Ideally there will be a product to sell to create revenue.’ (Koyama, 2010). Koyama Press’ aim, therefore, has been to support artistry ahead of profit from its initial conception, and this explains Wertz’s desire to publish with Koyama and Koyama’s acceptance of The Infinite Wait. a book which Wertz found was not easy to sell to major publishers due to its focus on telling the story of her diagnosis of systemic lupus, a narrative which she was not willing to compromise on, as evidenced by the written introduction to The Infinite Wait. ‘The book I really wanted to do,’ Wertz writes, ‘centered around my diagnosis of systemic lupus when I was 20. But when I finally decided to make it, I was told by industry types that “a book about lupus would not have mass appeal,” despite the 1.5 to 2 million lupus patients in the U.S. alone.’ (Wertz, 2012: 3). Earlier in the introduction she puts this in more polemical terms, stating that ‘large publishers don’t like to dabble in the absurd unless the author is a proven bestseller.’ (Wertz, 2012: 13).  Koyama Press’ willingness to ‘dabble in the absurd’ and to support the artist’s vision over the potential for sales, therefore, can be assumed to be a major factor in Wertz’s decision to publish with Koyama Press.

The Infinite Wait is written and drawn in the same visual style as Drinking at the Movies, and is still rife with the crass humour, profanity and painfully honest depictions of her failures that readers have come to expect from her previous works. However, there is a marked maturity and refinement to it, as she continues to explore the larger themes she began to touch upon in her first graphic novel. The central story concerns her Lupus diagnosis and the remaining two are shorter anecdotes about jobs and libraries. The book concludes with her finding Drinking at the Movies in the catalogue at her hometown’s library, despite thinking herself too “indie” to be there. The two books she published before Drinking at the Movies, volumes one and two of The Fart Party, would most likely have been too indie to be found in a local library. Quite aside from their rawness and their more obviously puerile content, which can be seen in a section called “Museum of Mistakes” on Wertz’s website, these books were initially self-published as mini-comics before being collected into books by Atomic Books. These two books are now out of print and difficult to acquire, but a retrospective collection is due to be released later this year.

In her career Wertz has gone from self-publishing mini-comics to publishing books with a small press, to publishing graphic novels with a mainstream publisher. This would seem, initially, to be a linear and unsurprising progression. However, after moving upwards to Random House with a contract enabling her to become a full-time cartoonist, Wertz broke the linearity of this progression by choosing to publish with Koyama Press. There are a number of works in comics scholarship which can contextualise Wertz’s publishing choices through their discussion of alternative comics and explain Wertz’s break from this progression.

Douglas Wolk’s book Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean sets out a somewhat radical dichotomy which is returned to throughout its essays on various creators. What he proposes is that there are “art comics” and “mainstream comics,” perhaps an oversimplified view of comics, but a useful one and one which suggests a context into which Wertz’s work fits. Wolk is quick to point out that he is not making a value judgement when he refers to “art comics,” but rather that he is using the word “art” to distance a certain type of comics from the many comics produced within the genre-driven mainstream. Art comics, he says, ‘privilege the distinctiveness of the creator’s hand, rather than the pleasures of the tools of genre and readerly expectation.’ (Wolk, 2007: 30) For Wertz, the distinctiveness of her hand is key, as she provides a rare combination of candid autobiography and puerile humour from a feminine perspective, and is single-minded in her desire to retain control over her narrative, evidenced again by the introduction to The Infinite Wait, in which she states ‘I hate it when anyone tries to be the boss of me, it will only ensure that I will do the opposite of what they say.’ (Wertz, 2012: 3). What also characterises Art Comics, according to Wolk, is auteurism – the emphasis and focus on the creator and the creator’s realisation of their artistic vision, as distinct from the “assembly line” production methods of the mainstream, with its history of “work-for-hire” contracts and deadline-based business. Although what Wolk would refer to as mainstream comics [2] do now have much more of a focus on creators, they are still made by numerous workers in a corporate setting and, as Wolk reminds us, under constant deadline pressure. This is not to say that art comics will be free of deadlines, but these are likely to be fewer and further between than those of the mainstream publishers.

The works Wolk calls “art comics” can be understood as a similar, if not the same, category of comics as those labelled “alternative comics” by Charles Hatfield in his book of the same name, although Hatfield’s definition assumes comics are a literary form, rather than engaging with them as art as Wolk does. The heart of both their definitions points toward the individual freedoms which characterise alternative comics, such as freedom from commercialism or corporate structure, which can be traced back to the underground comix revolution that began in the sixties, spearheaded by Robert Crumb’s self-published comics in homage to the satire of MAD magazine. Hatfield also uses the term “auteurism,” writing of the underground comix that they ‘introduced an “alternative” ethos that valued the productions of the lone cartoonist over collaborative or assembly-line work. In essence, comix made comic books safe for auteur theory: they established a poetic ethos of individual expression.’ (Hatfield, 2005: 16). Alternative Comics analyses Art Spiegelman, the Hernandez brothers and Justin Green, all of whom fit into both Wolk’s category of “art comics” and Hatfield’s view of alternative comics as an auteur-driven product of the underground comix movement. Hatfield also suggests that as an “emerging literature,” they are still growing and developing, a viewpoint which Douglas Wolk shares, saying they are improving in quality and number with a steep curve. Hatfield called his study a ‘progress report’ (Hatfield, 2005: xv) in its introduction and, indeed, since the book was published in 2005 alternative comics has continued to develop, with Wertz’s works and the publishing of Koyama Press being just one example of such a development.

Hillary Chute’s Graphic Women also supports the idea of alternative comics as a product of the underground comix movement, and traces the thread of freedom and auteurism through from the sixties to the recent works of Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, all of whom have contributed to the emergence described by Hatfield – Satrapi and Bechdel, in particular, have won or been nominated for various literary prizes, while Kominsky-Crumb is credited with ‘expand[ing] [comics] to include the texture of women’s lives’ (Chute, 2010: 20). ‘The underground,’ Chute writes, ‘shifted what comics could depict (its purview, its content) and, crucially, how it could depict. The underground saw its rigorous, unprecedented experiments in form as avant-garde; without the considerations of commerce, comics was liberated to explore its potential as an art form.’ (Chute, 2010: 14) This liberation provided the space for the growth of auteurism acknowledged by Wolk and Hatfield, and also, Chute reminds us, opened up alternative comics as a space for women’s narratives, evidenced by those that followed such as Wertz’s two graphic novels.

Randy Duncan and Matthew Smith’s The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture also engages directly with the idea of auteurism as one key to the development of comics as an art form, borrowing the term from film theory exactly as Wolk does and offering Harvey Kurtzman as one such example of an auteur alongside Alan Moore (Duncan and Smith, 2009: 118). Moore’s status as an auteur is useful here, as I do not wish to imply that an auteur cannot exist in the mainstream; an auteur can, of course, exist in any sphere of artistic production. Rather, I wish to show that a desire for auteurism is often a key reason a cartoonist will choose to publish with a small press, and a driver of the close relationship between alternative comics and small presses, with Wertz’s work as a case study. Although Duncan and Smith give examples of auteurism within mainstream comics, they acknowledge shortly after that mainstream comics have ‘traditionally relied on character-driven marketing based on the readers’ recognition of the property more than the creative personnel who produced it,’ (Duncan and Smith, 2009: 120) reinforcing the idea established by Wolk, Hatfield and Chute that alternative comics grew from the underground comix movement into a space for individual expression, free from commercial imperative, which celebrates individuals and thus promotes auteurs.

For Wertz, these values are key, and are the reason she chose to return to a small press after publishing with Random House. Wertz’s return to a small press can be read as a rehabilitation that came in tandem with her own entry into a rehab facility in 2010 immediately after she published Drinking at the Movies, hence the title of this article. The written introduction to The Infinite Wait is enlightening regarding the necessity of a rehabilitation. In short, Wertz writes that the idea for writing a book about her Lupus diagnosis was seen as risky by Random House, and goes on to explain the decision to publish with Koyama Press as being one driven by their willingness to take risks and to give her control over her work. Her assertion that ‘large publishers don’t like to dabble in the absurd unless the author is a proven bestseller’ (Wertz, 2012: 3) is based on her experience with Random House, but she does not specify, allowing the statement to cover all large publishers. For Wertz, the dichotomy is between large book publishers and small presses, rather than the divide between small presses and genre-driven mainstream comics publishers established by Wolk. However, the perceived negative aspects of publishing with a book publisher such as Random House are the same as those attributed to mainstream comics publishers in the text I have discussed above: what Chute refers to as ‘considerations of commerce’ (2010, 14).

Wertz uses the term “alternative comics” herself and is clearly aware of her work being alternative, or indie – she goes to lengths to define herself as so, setting herself up as indie now that big publishers no longer perceive indie graphic novels as a ‘hot new thing’ (Wertz, 2012: 93). However, the key sentence in the introduction to The Infinite Wait is ‘I refuse to be told what to do by people I don’t know regarding how to create something that will appeal to the masses I’ve never met.’ (Wertz, 2012: 3) This is central to Wertz’s decision to publish with Koyama Press rather than to pursue a compromise with Random House, despite the greater potential for financial reward that Random House may have offered. Wertz’s bold statement of refusal echoes Hatfield’s idea of a ‘poetic ethos of individual expression,’ which is also echoed in Koyama Press’ mandate. For Wertz, whose drive to publish a narrative about her Lupus diagnosis and unwillingness to compromise her own vision led her to leave a mainstream publisher, this ethos is the heart of alternative comics, and as this ethos was not fully realized for her until she found a home at Koyama Press, it is clear that the small press was a significant factor in this decision and that there is thus a relationship between small presses and alternative comics, based on the shared idea of celebrating the auteur cartoonist which was established by the underground comix movement and has continued to run through alternative comics as they have developed.

Wertz is, of course, just one example of an alternative cartoonist whose work finds its most comfortable and logical home with the small press. This fact does not mean that a mainstream book publisher, or indeed a mainstream comics publisher, could not provide a home for an auteur cartoonist or help them realise their work and their vision in a satisfactory fashion. Maus, which Chute desrcibes as a text absolutely essential to the development of alternative comics, was published by Penguin, and the works of Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi she analyses were published by mainstream book publishers. Alan Moore is, as Duncan and Smith remind us, one of the most notable auteurs in the history of comics as an art form. But Wertz’s sense of comfort in publishing with Koyama Press, evidenced throughout The Infinite Wait, is indicative of the small press’ ability to help creators of alternative comics fully realise their vision for a comic, and that cannot be underestimated.

Works Cited

Chute, Hillary. Graphic Women. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

Duncan, Randy and Smith, Matthew. The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture. New York: Continuum, 2009.

Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Koyama, Annie. “Koyama Press.” Accessed 21st April, 2014.

Koyama, Annie. “Koyama Press.” Accessed 9th June, 2010.

“Wayback Machine Internet Archive.” Accessed 4th May, 2014.

Wertz, Julia. Drinking at the Movies. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010.

Wertz, Julia. The Fart Party. Baltimore: Atomic Books, 2007.

Wertz, Julia. The Infinite Wait. Toronto: Koyama Press, 2012.

Wertz, Julia. “Museum of Mistakes.” Accessed 21st April, 2014.

Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2007.

Paddy Johnston is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex, currently working towards his PhD in English. His thesis is entitled ‘Working With Comics’ and will examine what it means to create cultural work as a cartoonist, with attention to art pedagogy, materiality, colour, digital comics and the influence of literary modernism. He has recently given papers at the Transitions 4 symposium in London, Comics Forum and the Comics and the Multimodal World conference in Vancouver and has been published in The Comics Grid journal and is a contributor to the comics blog Graphixia. He is the creator of the webcomic Best Intentions and is also a singer/songwriter and writer of fiction for the One Hour Stories podcast.

[1] – A website which periodically archives all other webpages, allowing users to browse the past content of a given website.

[2] – Wolk provides a more detailed summary of his divisions on pages 47-48 of Reading Comics, with the mainstream described thus: “The first is the mainstream: the majority of comics from long-running superhero publishers DC and Marvel, both of which make a lot of their profits from characters and franchises rather than directly from particular creators’ work. A handful of smaller companies like Image and Dark Horse also publish some comics with the tone and style that mark them as mainstream; in most cases, the particular cartoonists who work on projects like Conan and Spawn are, again, less important than their characters and concepts.” (Wolk, 2007: 47)

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was updated on the 17th of September to correct a factual error.]


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