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.


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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.

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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.

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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.]


News Review: August 2014


 United States


Rocket Raccoon #1 (Marvel) shot to the number one slot in Diamond Comic News Top 100 Comics in July. Batman #33 (DC) and Amazing Spider-Man #4 (Marvel) followed in the second and third spots respectively. Link (English, MB)

Diamond Comic News reported their Top 100 Graphic Novels for July, based on total unit sales of products invoiced. The top three spots went to Walking Dead Volume 21: All Out War Part 2 (Image), Avatar: The Last Airbender Volume 8: Rift Part 2 (Dark Horse), and Deadly Class Volume 1: Reagan Youth (Image). Link (English, MB)

The Summer 2014 Diamond Retail Best Practices Awards were held at the San Diego Comic Con on the 25th July. The link lists the categories, all those nominated, and the winning stores. Link (English, MB)


The Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association has put a call for papers out for several areas including Comics and Comic Art. The conference will be held between the 1st and 5th April 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The deadline for abstracts is the 1st November 2014. Link (English, MB)

The Southwest Popular/American Culture Association has a call out for presentation proposals for the annual conference held in Albuquerque, New Mexico between the 11th and 14th February 2015. The proposal submission deadline is the 1st November 2014. Link (English, MB)

Whit Taylor reports for The Comics Journal on the conference, Comics & Medicine: From Private Lives to Public Health, which took place between the 26th and 28th June at the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus, Baltimore. Link (01/08/2014, English, WG)

Sequart Organization has announced the release of New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, edited by Joseph F. Berenato. Link (English, WG)




On the 13th September, Kyoto International Manga Museum will hold a talk show with manga artists Est Em and Aono Shunju, and manga magazine IKKI editor Egami Hideki (with Kyoto Seika University Faculty of Manga Dean Yoshimura Kazuma as a facilitator) on the topic “Can we still talk about ‘The Dawn’ of comics?” Link (Japanese, JBS)

On the 20th September, the symposium Kansai International Tourism Year 2014, “Let’s think about the impact of manga and anime on tourism” will take place at Kyoto International Manga Museum, with four experts from the field of manga research and production: Yoshimura Kazuma, Inoue Shinichiro, Kondo Hikaru, and Sakurai Takamasa (this event will be held in Japanese). Link (Japanese, JBS)

From the 6th September until the 23rd, Kita Kyushu Manga Museum is hosting the exhibition “Manga and Media cross-overs”, including not just manga, but animation and mixed media, as well as creative environments that include both professional and amateur creators. The Museum is closed on Wednesdays. The exhibition includes art by Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure artist Araki Hirohiko. Link (29/08/2014, Japanese, JBS)

The Museum of Kyoto is hosting the “Let’s go to space, brother!” Exhibition (until September the 23rd), featuring 200 pieces of original art by “Space Brothers (Uchu Kyodai)” manga artist Koyama Chuya, as well as material from the animated series and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Link (30/07/2014, English, JBS)

Director Miyazaki Hayao is to receive a Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures Art. Link (29/08/2014, English, JBS)

To commemorate the 80th anniversary of Doraemon creator, Fujiko F. Fujio, Osaka Gran Front is hosting the Fujiko F. Fujio Exhibition (until the 5th October). Link (Japanese, JBS)


The Copyright Subcommittee of the JSSCC (Japanese Society for Studies in Cartoons and Comics) will hold its 1st lecture meeting on the 10th September (at Japan Patent Attorneys Association Hall, B1 conference room A). Komori Ikuya will hold a lecture on the revision history of Japanese copyright law in 2014; this event will be held in Japanese. Link (Japanese, JBS)

The Philippines


There is a call for papers for the 15th Annual International Conference on Japanese Studies &
the 6th Women’s Manga Conference: A Joint International Conference. The conference theme is, Manga and the Manga-esque: New Perspectives to a Global Culture, and will take place between the 22nd and 25th January 2015 at Ateneo de Manila University. Link (27/06/2014, English, WG)




The next Copenhagen Comics festival will take place between the 6th and 7th June 2015. The special theme of the 2015 festival is Children and Youth. A general meeting will be held on 3rd September, where opportunities to participate in the festival as a volunteer will be presented. Register as a volunteer or learn more about volunteering at Copenhagen Comics 2015 via the link provided. There is also information and an opportunity to register for the general meeting on their Facebook page. Link 1 (Danish, KBF), Link 2 (English, KBF)



Manu Larcenet’s bande dessinée series Le Combat Ordinaire (2003-2008) is being adapted for cinema. The film will be directed by Laurent Tuel (Inside Ring, Tour de Force). Link 1 (29/08/2014, French, LTa), Link 2 (24/07/2014, English, LTa)


There is a call for contributors for, Pratiques de la bande dessinée au féminin: Expériences, formes, discours, a volume focusing on post-2000 francophone bande dessinée created by women. The deadline for abstracts of 300 words is the 31st October. Link (French, LTa)



An exhibition on the educational comic Tagebuch 14/18 took place at Bilderbuchmuseum Troisdorf from the 3rd August to the 3rd September. Link (04/08/2014, German, MdlI)

Cöln Comic Haus announces two events in Cologne: a 24 hour comic day on the 4th October, and a comic fair on the 8th November. Link (11/08/2014, German, MdlI)

Germany’s first manga café opened in Düsseldorf. Link (20/08/2014, German, MdlI)

The exhibition “Holocaust im Comic” opens again in Bochum on the 23rd October. Link (25/08/2014, German, MdlI)

The fourth “Graphic Novel Day” is going to take place as part of “14. internationales literaturfestival berlin” on the 14th September; guests include Reinhard Kleist. Link (28/08/2014, German, MdlI)


The latest issue of the magazine Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte focuses on comics; contributors include several comics scholars. Link (German, MdlI)

The programme of the conference “Übersetzungen und Adaptionen von Comics / The Translation and Adaptation of Comics” in Hildesheim from the 31st October to the 2nd November is now online. Link (German and English, MdlI)



In connection with Comicdom Press, a comic book library has opened in Athens, Greece. Link (Greek, WG)



The Raptus 2014 festival takes place between the 19th and 21st September in Bergen. The festival homepage, including a list of guest artists, can be accessed via the link. Further information is available on the Rasmus 2014 Facebook page. Link 1 (Norwegian, KBF), Link 2 (Norwegian, KBF)



Some of the walls, buildings, and prominent spaces in the city of Amadora are being painted with posters from the previous editions of its international annual comics festival, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Link (09/08/2014, Portuguese, RR)



The exhibition “Mar interior”, which displays an anthology of the work of Miguelanxo Prado (a prominent Spanish author), is being shown at the Museo des Peregrinacións (Santiago de Compostela), from the 1st August until the 31st December. Link (01/08/2014, Spanish, EdRC)

The exhibition “El TBO: un comic para tiempos difíciles”, which covers the history of Spain’s longest and most iconic comics magazine is being shown at Segorbe (Comunidad Valenciana), from the 25th July until the 7th September. Link (25/07/2014, Spanish, EdRC)

The first edition of Ñam, a new international comics and graphic novels festival, will take place in Palencia from the 30th September to the 5th October. The festival will host national and international personalities such as Scott McCloud, Matt Madden, Chloé Cruchaudet, David Aja, David Rubín and Alfonso Zapico. The program includes many workshops and conferences. Link (Spanish, EdRC)

The 17th edition of the festival, Viñetas do Atlántico, was celebrated in La Coruña between the 4th and 10th August, with the presence of, among others, Zidrou, Marcos Martín and Charlie Adlard. Link (04/08/2014, Spanish, EdRC)


The book, Narraciones gráficas. Del códice medieval al comic, by Roberto Bartual has been published thanks to a crowdfunding project. The book focuses upon the history and pre-history of comics and graphic narration. Link (Spanish, EdRC)

The book was also presented on the 29th of July in café Molar, Madrid. Link (27/07/2014, Spanish, EdRC)



The dates for the AltCom 2014 festival have been announced. The festival, which features the Apocalypse as its theme, will take place in Malmö, between the 4th and 9th November. Information in both Swedish and English can be found on the festival’s home page. Link (Swedish, KBF)


The Scandinavian Journal of Comic Art is planning a special issue on Nordic history and cultural memory in comics, and invites articles about these and related matters. The deadline for abstracts is 1st October 2014; full articles are due on 1st January 2015. Link (English, KBF)



The Dundee Literary Festival has released details of this years Dundee Comics Day, which takes place on the 26th October. Link (29/08/2014, English, WG)

DeeCAP: Autobiographical Comics Special will take place at the University of Dundee on the 15th September. The event sees artists and writers bring their strips to life with live interaction alongside a visual slideshow. Link (English, WG)


The Scottish Book Trust, in partnership with the University of Dundee and Literary Dundee, have announced the launch of the Comics Lab 2014. This short course will offer sessions on creating comics, advice on developing your work, and pitching to publishers. The application deadline is the 12th September, and runs on the 25th and 26th October. Link (English, WG)


There is a call for contributions to a special themed issue of the journal, New Readings, focused upon Comics and Translation. Submissions should be sent before the 10th November. Link (English, WG)

Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews, edited by Sarah Lightman, has recently been published through McFarland. Link (English, WG)

Paul Williams at the University of Exeter has been awarded funding for the project, “Reframing the Graphic Novel: Long-Form Adult Comic Narratives in North America and the UK 1973-82″. Further information on the project can be found through the link. Link (07/08/2014, English, WG)




There is a call for papers for Inkers and Thinkers Interdisciplinary Symposium 2015: Alternative Forms, Alternative Voices. Abstracts are due by the 15th October for the event which takes place on the 15th and 16th May 2015. Link (19/08/2014, English, WG)

*                    *                    *


News Editor: Will Grady (

Correspondents: Jessica Bauwens-Sugimoto (JBS, Japan), Michele Brittany (MB, North America), Enrique del Rey Cabero (EdRC, Spain), Kristy Beers Fägersten (KBF, Denmark, Norway, Sweden), William Grady (WG, UK), Martin de la Iglesia (MdlI, Germany), Renatta Rafaella (RR, Portugal), Lise Tannahill (LTa, France).

Click here for News Review correspondent biographies.

Click here to see the News Review archive.

Suggestions for articles to be included in the News Review can be sent to Will Grady at the email address above.

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Posted by on 2014/09/04 in News Review


The Bi-Monthly ComFor Update: August 2014 by Stephan Packard

With most academic conferences in Germany clustered in spring and fall, the summer has been comparatively restful. So this column in our ongoing series on comics studies in Germany and at ComFor, the German Society for Comics Studies, will be comparatively short.

First off, the Roland Faelske Award for Comics and Animation has been announced for the third time in a row. Organised by the ingeniously named ArGL, the “Arbeitsstelle für Graphische Literatur” or “Workplace for Graphical Literature”, at Hamburg University, the prize rewards a best graduate and a best PhD thesis from the previous two years. Winners will be announced in November.

Continuing 2014’s ongoing remembrance of the First World War, the bilingual French and German publication Tagebuch 14-18 / Carnets 14-18 presents four stories from Germany and France in a comics format. Created by Alexander Hogh and Jörg Mailliet, the volume offers a “social panorama” of the time of the war from the perspective of its younger generations.  From early August and continuing through September 3rd, the work is also being exhibited in Troisdorf, alongside a greater exhibition on picture books and children’s books explaining the war.

Some further noteworthy exceptions to the summer lull included the annual Workshop of the Chair for American Studies at the university of Bayreuth in July, which focused on “Graphic Narratives” this year.  A part of a research project on risk fiction and cultures of speculation, the program presented talks on destiny concepts in X-Men: Days of Future Past, dystopian visions of technology in comics, and dystopian desires in graphic novels. Meanwhile, and providing a focus on comics studies in connection to a completely different topic, Dietrich Grünewald offered a look at “Ein Wert an sich – Geld im Comic” [‘Its own value: Money in Comics’] at the award ceremony and vernissage of H-Team’s project on debt prevention for minors in June. The H-Team had organized a competition and exhibition for comics dealing with the subject in Munich.

Visual linguist Neil Cohn connected three stops on his German tour in early summer, moving from Saarbrücken through Freiburg to Bremen, where he was invited as part of the research project on transmedia textuality, organized by ComFor-member Janina Wildfeuer and her colleagues. In several workshops and talks, Cohn presented his ideas on a common deep structure shared by comic strips and lingual syntax, drawing on empirical and cognitive research as well as a generative model of the structure of comic strips. Discussion was lively, sometimes controversial, and always inspiring; and we’re happy to say that Neil will join us again in September for this year’s annual conference.

Some other events are still ahead of us. The International Graphic Novel Salon at Hamburg on September 18th presents publications and translations of works by Philippe Ôtiè, Gabriella Giandelli, Sohyun Jung and Alfonso Zapico. The Cöln Comic Haus at Cologne draws attention to several events this fall, including a 24-hours-comic-day on October 4th, and an international fair for comics and novels on November 8th. All of the ongoing events at Cöln can be viewed on their website. Perhaps most prominently, the Frankfurt Book Fair, October 8th-12th, having recently announced the end of the well-established “Comic-Zentrum” as a part of its annual program, is now preparing to replace the centre with a more topically oriented, interconnected “focus” on the artform, consisting of several joint presentations, events, and guest speakers.

Calls for Papers have prepared us for several conferences later this year: In mid-November, Cologne is planning to debate the “Mediale Zeitenwende”, the “turn of media eras” connected to the narrative turn in dealing with visual narrations (14th & 15th Nov); and  Hamburg will host trans- and interdisciplinary discussions on “Visuelle Narrative – Kulturelle Identitäten” [‘Visual Narratives – Cultural Identities’], at the end of that month (27-29th Nov).

But before all of these, we are getting ready for ComFor’s annual conference in late September. This year, we will meet in Berlin to discuss comics with a focus on “Drawing Borders, Crossing Boundaries”. Intermediality, interdisciplinarity, topics of migration and transnationality, and not least depictions of transhumanism present the four main focal points, with panels and talks in German as well as English. We are very happy that Roger Sabin and Neil Cohn have agreed to join us as keynote speakers; a public debate on transgressions of all kinds in comics and an open discussion on efforts surrounding transdisciplinarity in the practice of comics theory complement the program. In a parallel event, Peter Lorenz and Matthias Harbeck will be discussing opportunities and challenges for archiving and presenting comics at libraries, an urgent topic not least due to the lack of strong comics collections at most German (and indeed, most international) academic libraries, and the need to preserve valuable private collections  beyond the demise of their original owners. The conference is also coupled with a series of lectures and workshops on the use of comics in schoolrooms: “Grenzenlos: Comics im Unterricht”, organized by the BDK – Fachverband für Kunstpädagogik, Berlin. The full schedule for the ComFor 2014 conference can now be found online; international guests are very welcome. As always: Won’t you join us there?

Stephan Packard is President of the German Society for Comics Studies (ComFor) and Junior Professor for Media Culture Studies at Freiburg University. Interests focus on semiotic and psychoanalytic research into new and traditional media; the semiotics of affect; censorship and other forms of media control; as well as comics studies. He is editor of the journals Medienobservationen and  Mediale Kontrolle unter Beobachtung, and recently published an edited volume on Comics & Politik – Comics & Politics (Berlin 2013).

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Posted by on 2014/08/31 in ComFor Updates


Manga Studies #4: Traversing Art and Manga: Ishiko Junzō’s Writings on Manga/Gekiga by Shige (CJ) Suzuki

I. Who is Ishiko Junzō?[1]

Arguably, one of the first Japanese critics to discuss graphic narratives (story manga) for mature audiences is Ishiko Junzō (1928 – 1977).[2]  Initially active as an art critic who explored a wide range of contemporaneous artistic and popular movements, he began to publish writings more specifically on manga between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s. To many English-language readers his name might be obscure, perhaps even more so than his contemporary, philosopher and cultural critic Tsurumi Shunsuke, whose book Sengo Nihon no taishū bunkashi (A Cultural History of Postwar Japan 1945-1980)—a chapter of which is devoted to postwar manga—is available in English. Yet, in present-day Japanese-language manga research, Ishiko is repeatedly referenced, especially in relation to his media-specific discussion of manga. This article shall introduce art critic Ishiko Junzō and his scholarship, concentrating on his contribution to Japanese comics criticism and manga studies.

II. Manga as The People’s Culture

Ishiko’s debut as a full-fledged manga critic was through his book, Manga geijutsu-ron (Manga Art) published in 1967. As the title of this book suggests, Ishiko argues that manga is art but not in a conventional sense. In this book, Ishiko denounces the common perception that disregards manga, separating it from other visual art such as painting, illustration, satirical drawing, design, etc.[3] For him, the claim “manga is not art” derived from the modern, authoritative idea of Art, which elevates art into the domain of the “highbrow” (Ishiko 1967: 22). Being critical of institutionalized forms of Art, Ishiko contends that in modernity art lost its meaningful relationship with the everyday lives of the people in the (misguided) pursuit of the independent mind and autonomous agency.[4] Such a critical view of Ishiko on art was concurrent with “anti-art” movements of his time practiced by Japanese avant-garde groups such as Neo-Dada, Gutai, and High-Red-Center.[5] Their experimental works and public performances pushed the boundaries of what had been accepted as “art,” either problematizing or rejecting institutionalized or authoritative notions of Art. In this tide of protesting against the Establishment, Ishiko proposed his theory of manga as a cultural text that has the potential of (re-)connecting art and life.

Ishiko’s first book was also a response to a changed perception of manga in the 1960s. Until around the mid-1950s, manga, or more precisely, story-manga largely remained an entertainment aimed at children.[6] Because of this, previous manga criticisms were written mainly by professionals and researchers in the fields of education, psychology, and children’s literature, all concerned with the impact of this media on children (Takeuchi 2009: 9). While some defended manga against criticism, many others made meticulous attempts to identify “harmful” elements in manga. At that time, Japanese comics were under pressure, facing calls for censorship—analogous to the social climate of comics censorship in North America—and often attacked by conservative sectors in society for an assumed negative impact on children.[7] From the mid-1950s to the 1960s, however, postwar story-manga had gradually evolved to also cater to young men and adults, not just children. Responding to this newly gained status of manga, Ishiko formulated his theory of manga, locating it as part of popular culture (taishū bunka).

Throughout his writings on manga, Ishiko considered manga as a modern product: mass-produced via reproduction technology, thus disavowing the uncritically repeated contention of previous scholarship that regarded manga as an extension of traditional pictorial art (Ishiko 1967: 21). As targeted to a mass audience, Ishiko argues, manga manifests, beyond its surface, the people’s collective lived experiences, their mentalities, desires, and thoughts. In Ishiko’s theory, the real agent of creating manga is not an individual author but the ordinary people (taishū)—an “anonymous, middle-class mass” (Ishiko 1967: 34)—who call on and invent their own specific form of manga for themselves. With this view, he explored manga in a multidirectional way including themes, the relation between content and form, media, readership, production, circulation, and consumption, though not necessarily in a rigorous academic manner.

III. Ishiko on Gekiga

In Japanese-language manga criticism, Ishiko was also known for his discussion on gekiga (“dramatic pictures”), a newly emergent form of graphic narrative at that time. Originally initiated by comics artist Tatsumi Yoshihiro in 1957, gekiga developed as a distinct subgenre of Japanese comics within a decade. Some gekiga in this period assumed the nature of alternative comics, as exemplified by unorthodox gekiga featured in the monthly magazine Garo.[8] Responding to the prominence of gekiga with unconventional themes and styles, Ishiko, along with other critics such as Gondō Suzumu (aka Takano Shinzō), Kajii Jun and Kikuchi Asajirō (aka Yamane Sadao), founded a dōjinshi (fanzine) for manga criticism titled Mangashugi (Mangaism) in 1967.[9] In this magazine, he and other contributors often discussed the works of gekiga creators such as Shirato Sanpei (The Legend of Kamui), Mizuki Shigeru (Gegege no Kitarō and NonNonBā), Tsuge Yoshiharu (“The Screw Style”), Tatsumi Yoshihiro (Abandon the Old in Tokyo) and other Garo-oriented creators.

When discussing gekiga, Ishiko paid attention to its publication format, readership, and the mode of consumption (including the physical sites involved in accessing gekiga). From its beginning until around the late-60s, gekiga were published in book format and rented from or read at kashihon-ya (rental bookstores).[10] According to Ishiko, the majority of kashion gekiga readers were young blue-collar workers (Ishiko 1994: 114).[11] In his writings about gekiga, he reasons that the growth of gekiga had its foundation in the interests of these workers (a group with very little disposable income); and that in turn, gekiga creators were catering especially to them. This mutual relationship along with the interplay of the industry, media form, consumption pattern, he argues, played a significant role in shaping gekiga as a specific genre. Ishiko’s approach here is similar to comics scholar Charles Hatfield’s discussion of the rise of alternative comics in North America: Hatfield relates his analysis to the function of comics specialty shops that fostered sophisticated readers, which then served the development of alternative comics (Hatfield 2008: 24-25).

In retrospect, the limit of Ishiko’s criticism was his concomitant engagement with dynamically changing comics industry and culture. From the late 1960s, gekiga began to be coopted into weekly manga magazines issued by major publishing houses. Famously, Weekly Shōnen Magazine began to serialize several gekiga works from the late 1960s.[12] Around the same time, new manga magazines for young men and adults (seinen manga) were founded by these large publishers to feature gekiga works.[13] For Ishiko, such industrially coopted gekiga seemed a “transformation” of gekiga, losing its connection with the people. Ishiko attempted in vain to differentiate those gekiga works in manga weeklies from his “ideal” gekiga in kashihon book format by calling the former “gekiga-like manga” (gekiga-chō manga).[14] In the early 1970s, he witnessed the increasing prominence of an innovative type of girls’ comics (shōjo manga) by young female creators–later called the Magnificent 49ers (Hana no 24nen gumi)–and anticipated their critical potential, stating that they exhibit the “embryotic stirrings of something new” (quoted in Hyuga 2012: 322). However, Ishiko failed to fully address its potential and he wrote less on shōjo manga than on gekiga. During the last years of his short life, Ishiko’s interest shifted to other popular cultural productions, kitsch, bathhouse paintings, lullabies and plastic food replicas, while still maintaining his interest in manga.

IV. Criticism and Re-evaluation of Ishiko’s Discussion on Manga

1990s manga criticism witnessed the rise of the approach called “manga hyōgen-ron”–which Jaqueline Berndt identifies as “stylistics” or “aesthetics” (Berndt 2014: n.p)–that marginalized, if not deliberately disregarded, Ishiko’s media-specific discussion on manga.[15] Similar to formalism, though often tinged with impressionistic criticism, the hyōgen-ron critics asserted the autonomy of manga, thereby attempting to legitimize its cultural value. They also favored the works of Tezuka and other representative, often male manga artists over gekiga and shōjo manga, celebrating their technical “craftsmanship” or “mastery” at the expense of the narratives’ socio-critical implications (Natsume 1995; Natsume and Takekuma 1995). As distinct from Ishiko, the hyōgen-ron summoned romanticized ideas of artist and art’s “autonomy.” As for its impact on manga criticism, Berndt rightly recapitulates “manga hyōgen-ron unwittingly inherited the modern notion of art with its claim of autonomy despite the pursuit of analyses of form that is unique to the manga medium” (Berndt 2008: 19-20). It should be noted here that this is the very view that Ishiko once problematized in his writings a couple of decades earlier. Yet, the prominence of the hyōgen-ron approach in Japanese language manga criticism had a similar impact to that of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics in North America: that is, it invited academics into the study of manga, setting the scene for what we call now “manga studies.”

After 2000, Ishiko’s works have been re-evaluated in Japanese-language manga research with the rise of methodologically-conscious young academics. In his essay, sociologist Uryū Yoshimitsu attempted to recuperate the critical potential of Ishiko’s writings. While criticizing the hyōgen-ron critics who played down socio-historical or media-specific discussion, Uryū historicized the genealogy of manga criticism to reveal the discursive formation, which allowed for the plausibility of the hyōgen-ron approach. In his earlier essay, Uryū already employed and expanded Ishiko’s “media theory,” which examines the correlation between the characteristics of media (e.g. newspaper, magazine, or kashihon book) and that of manga content/format when tracing the rise of the gekiga genre and its transformation (Uryū 1996). Art historian Kajiya Kenji also re-examines Ishiko’s writings in his 2011 essay, tracing his shift of interest in manga from thematics to formalism, and then to structuralism.[16] According to Kajiya, Ishiko theorized manga (à la Walter Benjamin) as a cultural text created through “perceptional convention” (“chikaku no narai”), a sort of “perceptional, cognitive and aesthetic convention,” that is socially and historically constituted within a given society (Kajiya 2011: 107). For Ishiko, seeing is not merely a biological process, rather it is a constructed, institutionalized, and embodied one. According to Ishiko, Kajiya argues, this “perceptional convention” went beyond the “affect or consciousness” which a comics artist uses in creating manga. In Kajiya’s reading, Ishiko’s work was an attempt to capture this “perceptional convention” manifested in manga (mainly as gekiga) as well as other mass-produced kitsch objects in the Japanese context. More recently, young scholar Miwa Kentarō tries to mediate both hyōgen-ron formalism and Ishiko’s approach in his 2014 book Manga to eiga (Manga and Film), suggesting that the latter’s approach can be applied to a discussion of fan-produced manga due to the nature of direct communication and interaction between fan creators and their readers (Miwa 2014: 394). These recent cases illustrate the ongoing impact of Ishiko’s approach on manga studies, inspiring scholars and researchers in their searches for new methodologies.

V. Ishiko on Intermediality of Manga

Recently in North America, Ishiko’s name has begun to appear in the field of art criticism, especially in the context of Japan’s postwar avant-gardism and radical art experimentalism. For instance, Doryun Chong et al. edited From Postwar to Postmodern (2012), an anthology of critical essays and selected documents on postwar radical art for instance, featured Ishiko’s short essay, “Painting as A Theory of Painting” (1968). In her essay published in the MOMA catalogue Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde, media art scholar Miryam Sas quotes Ishiko’s understanding of the term “intermedia”–one of the key terms popularized in the 1960s in North America by Dick Higgins and other Fluxus group artists–in the Japanese context:

I [Ishiko] understood that the composite term intermedia . . . designated an AND [to], not only between one genre of art and another but across various conjunctions, for example, between art AND technology, or environment AND art, everyday life AND art, medium AND message, aspiring to totalize the relational structure of perception and cognition. (quoted in Sas 2012: 140)

Ishiko’s multidirectional, interdisciplinary interests in a cultural text with its “relational structure” existed from his early writings. For Ishiko, manga is never self-contained or autonomous, but always in relation to something else (e.g. readership, medium, publication site, technology, consumption site, etc.). This relational view is deeply linked to Ishiko’s persistent interest in the “intemediality” of manga as a cultural text that is always and already in relation to something other than itself.

Ishiko’s interdisciplinary research on his contemporaneous visual culture was responding to the turbulently shifting media ecology in mid-20th century Japan.[17] Given the current new environment where digital media are increasingly changing our mode of interaction and communication in everyday life, Ishiko’s work continues to be a very relevant and fertile resource for manga studies.

Works Cited:

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.

——2014. “Manga Studies #1: Introduction,” in Comics Forum, May 11, 2014. Accessed June 10, 2014,

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

Hyuga, Akiko, 2012. “From Literary Media to Image Media,” in Doryun Chong et al., eds., Tokyo: 1955-1970: From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents, New York: Museum of Modern Art, pp. 321-324.

Holmberg, Ryan, 2010. Garo Manga: The First Decade 1964-1973, New York: Center for Book Arts.

Ishiko, Junzō.

——1967. Manga geijustu-ron: Gendai nihon-jin no sensu to yūmoa no kōzai (Manga Art: The Merits and Demerits of Contemporary Japanese Sense and Humor). Tokyo: Fuji shoin.

——1970. Gendai manga no shisō. Tokyo: Taihei shuppansha

——1994. Sengo mangashi nōto. Tokyo: Kinokuniya shoten.

——2012 “Painting as A Theory of Painting” in Doryun Chong et al., eds., Tokyo: 1955-1970: From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents, New York: Museum of Modern Art, pp. 210-213.

Ishiko, Junzō, Asajirō Kikuchi, and Susumu Gondō, 1973. Gekiga no shisō, Tokyo: Taihei Shuppansha.

Itō, Go, 2005. Tezuka izu deddo: Hirakareta hyogenron e, Tokyo: NTT shuppan.

Kajiya, Kenji, 2011 “Ishiko Junzō no chikakuron teki tenkai,” in Bijitsu Forum 21, (24): 104-112.

Miwa, Kentarō, 2014. Manga to eiga: koma to jikan no riron, Tokyo: NTT shuppan.

Natsume, Fusanosuke.

——1992. Tezuka Osamu wa doko ni iru, Tokyo: Chikuma shobō.

——1995. Tezuka Osamu no bōken, Tokyo: Chikuma shobō.

——2002. “Manga hyōgen-ron no genkai o megutte,” in Jaqueline Berndt, ed., Manga no bi/gakuteki na jigen e no sekkin, Kyoto: Daigo shobō, pp.1-22.

Natsume, Fusanosuke, Takekuma, Kentarō et. al., 1995. Manga no yomikata, Tokyo: Takarajima-sha.

Sas, Myryam, 2012. “Intermedia, 1955-1970,” in Doryun Chong et al eds., Tokyo: 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde, New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Suzuki, S, 2013. “Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s Gekiga and the Global Sixties: Aspiring for an Alternative”, in Jaqueline Berndt and Bettina Kümerling-Meibauer, eds., Manga’s Cultural Crossroads, New York: Routledge, pp. 48-62

Takeuchi, Osamu.

——2002. Manga hyōgengaku nyūmon, Tokyo: Chikuma shobō.

——2009. Honryū manga-gaku: Manga kenkyū hando bukku, Kyoto, Japan: Kōyō shobō.

Tezuka Osamu, 1999. Tezuka Osamu: Boku wa mangaka, Tokyo: Nihon tosho sentā.

Tomii, Reiko, 2007. “Geijutsu on Their Minds: Memorable Words on Anti-Art,” in Reiko Tomii and Bert Winther-Tamaki, eds., Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art: Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan: 1950-1970, Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute.

Tsurumi, Shunsuke, 1984. A Cultural History of Postwar Japan 1945-1980, London: KPI.

Yomota, Inuhiko, 1994. Manga gen-ron, Tokyo: Chikuma shobō.

Uryū, Yoshimitsu.

——1996. “‘Gekiga’ janru no seiritsu to henyō: media teki shiza ni yoru “shōnen-mono” janru no jirei kenkyū,” in Tokyo daigaku shakai jōhō kenkyū jo, 52, pp. 89-107.

——. 2000. “Manga o kataru koto no genzai,” in Yoshimi Shunya, ed., Media sutadīzu. Tokyo: Serika shobō, pp. 128-139.

Shige (CJ) Suzuki is Assistant Professor of Modern Languages and Comparative Literature at Baruch College, The City University of New York (CUNY). He received his Ph.D. in Literature from University of California at Santa Cruz in 2008. His research interests are comparative literature, film, critical theory, and popular culture. Recent published articles on comics include “Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s Gekiga and the Global Sixties: Aspiring for an Alternative” in Manga’s Cultural Crossroads, edited by Jaqueline Berndt and Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer (2013) and “Autism and Manga: Comics for Women, Disability, and Tobe Keiko’s With the Light” in International Perspectives on Shojo and Shojo Manga: The Influence of Girl Culture, edited by Masami Toku (will be published in 2015).

[1] – Japanese names in this essay are presented in the Japanese style: Surname first, given name last (e.g. Tezuka Osamu).
[2] – Ishiko Junzō should not be confused with another manga critic and historian Ishiko Jun.
[3] Ishiko’s first book discusses these visual/cultural texts, including animation (anime), generally referred to as “manga eiga” (manga film) in this period.
[4] See Tomii (2007: 53) for Ishiko’s idea about “art in modernity.”
[5] For these avant-garde groups, see Reiko Tomii and Bert Winther-Tamaki, eds., (2007) and Doryun Chong and et al, eds. (2012).
[6] I should note that this view is valid only excluding other types of manga such as newspaper cartoons and 4-frame panel comic strips (yonkoma manga), many of which have existed for the general public.
[7] In his autobiography, Tezuka reminisces that the book, The Game of Death: Effects of the Cold War on Our Children (1953), by American journalist Albert E. Kahn–which shares the same criticism with Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent–was introduced to Japan in 1955 giving further impetus for the censorship on manga (1999: 191).
[8] Garo was founded by gekiga creator Shirato Sanpei and editor/publisher Nagai Katsuichi in 1964. For more detail, see Ryan Holmberg’s Garo Manga.
[9] The term dōjinshi might be associated with fan-created manga or fan fiction, but it signifies any self-published works including literary magazines, novels, video games, etc. among participants who share the same taste or interests (dōjin).
[10] Kashihon-ya refers a rental bookstore or lending library where a customer can borrow or read books at the store for a small charge. Kashihon-ya was one of the places to access manga up until the late 1960s before manga magazines from Tokyo-centered publishers occupied the manga market. See Suzuki (2013) for more detailed discussion about the earlier development of gekiga.
[11] Presumably, gekiga works were also read by students and adults, including, for instance, Ishiko himself.
[12] While the name of this weekly manga magazine carries “shōnen” (boys), it began to serialize gekiga from the late-1960s. Sociologist Uryū Yoshimitsu identifies the year 1970 as the year when this magazine set forth its gekiga-centric policy (Uryū 1996).
[13] For instance, Futabasha’s Weekly Manga Action founded in 1967 and Shōgakkan’s Big Comic founded in 1958.
[14] See Ishiko (1994: 138-142)
[15] The hyōgen-ron approach is closely associated with the works of Natsume Fusanosuke (1992; 1995), Yomota Inuhiko (1994), Takeuchi Osamu (2005) and Itō Go (2005). Also see Natume’s self-critical reflection on his writings of the 1990s (Natsume 2002).
[16] Kajiya’s essay appeared as a part of a special issue in Bijitsu Forum 21 (2011) edited by Jaqueline Berndt. In the introductory essay, Berndt states that after the 1980s, manga criticism had no longer consulted “art.” The issue was intended to bridge the gap by cross-referencing recent manga criticism and art/art theory.
[17] For instance, the advent of television, the change of manga format from kashihon book to manga magazine, and the rise of television animation (anime), etc.

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Posted by on 2014/08/11 in Manga Studies


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