Some thoughts on an Emerging Field: Connections, Transitions and Looking Ahead by Nina Mickwitz

29 Oct

Over the past three years the Transitions symposium at Birkbeck College has established a presence in the annual events calendar of UK Comics Studies. For an excellent description of how this came to be, the rationale behind the event and of the collaborative DIY-ethos that continues to characterise Transitions I’d like to refer you to ‘The indisciplined middle space’ by Tony Venezia. What Tony wrote a year ago is as relevant now as it was then.

The organisation of this year’s event has been a team effort involving a small group of PhD students at both Birkbeck and the University of East Anglia. Our aim has been to provide a continuation of Transitions, and to maintain the attitude and character of what originated as Tony’s brainchild. We hope that the diverse and promising programme of papers will offer the opportunity to trace some of the current directions as indicated by new research, with the proviso that this selection should be seen as loosely indicative rather than necessarily representative. This year’s keynote, by Chris Murray and Julia Round, will provide insights into the current challenges and opportunities of teaching and researching comics in the academic context. In addition, a roundtable discussion will provide a chance to reflect on the shared scholarly context we inhabit, as constituted by networks of practices and initiatives.

The term ‘comics studies’ in itself seems to suggest that comics scholarship can be identified as a distinct, if diffuse, academic field. I doubt that I am alone in repeatedly finding myself referring to it as ‘an emerging field’. This expression however, calls for closer scrutiny. First, emergence indicates something being in the process, unfolding with no specific reference to a start point or completion. Such imprecise developments, alignments and connections are often easier to discern in hindsight. But the implied vagueness belies what is at stake here; ideas leading to actions, initiatives, practices and processes demanding committed and continued work. Second, in keeping with an image of emergence as disparate fragments and uncertain indications of forms, the connections between which gradually become visible, at what point do we recognise or identify the field as such? Seminal works on the subject have been published long before it was possible to speak of comics studies as a distinctive field. Instances when comics take on a prominent role as conference topic or the themed edition of a journal might easily remain an isolated and fleeting flavour of the month, flash in the pan or momentary fascination. But, a shift appears to take place once even a few recurring and regular events and manifestations, whether in the shape of a journal, archive or online forum, assert a presence. This becomes especially apparent in the intersections, connections and traffic between such points. It would in effect appear that a field is constituted by precisely the practices, actions and processes through which it emerges. This may seem convoluted, or perhaps self-evident, but some real-world examples can be used for clarification.

In the last few years a range of initiatives have seen the light of day; there are evident connections between them and they all contribute to the collective identity of UK comics scholarship. The first Comics Studies journal published in the UK, European Comic Art, appeared in 2008. In 2009 Mel Gibson set up the mailing list UK Comics Scholars JISCM@il List to facilitate contact between interested parties, and Ian Hague organised the first Comics Forum in association with the Thought Bubble comics convention in Leeds. Comics Forum has since become one of several regular fixtures. It also provided the initial inspiration for the Transitions symposium in London. 2010 saw the first issues of two journals, Studies in Comics (Intellect) and The Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics (Routledge) and a conference at Manchester Metropolitan University. Comics Grid, the peer-reviewed online journal was conceived as a collaborative project between a group of scholars who met at some of these conferences, leading to a first publication in January 2011. These examples are by no means fully representative; the annual comics conference in Dundee, for example, dates back to 2007 and other significant connections will have been made leading up to the subsequent groundswell. Nor does it feel wholly appropriate to name-check Comica: London International Comics Festival, Women in Comics, Laydeez Do Comics and Graphic Medicine without further contextualisation. I will work on the assumption that if not familiar already, links providing the relevant information will be at your fingertips. To provide a more apt description of the numerous important nodes in UK comics studies it would probably be better to draw a spider diagram, as the multiple connections and interchanges seem particularly badly suited to the linear format of a written list. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to suggest that a field emerges, expands and is maintained in the form of initiatives, connections and collaborations through which debate and the exchange of ideas can take place.

The range of fields and disciplines which comics studies inhabits is undeniable; the study of comics extends across a broad range of academic fields; social sciences, media studies, modern languages and literature, history, geography, visual communication and arts. It would seem that the field is inherently interdisciplinary. This is a term with strong currency in academic and institutional contexts, but is often used with limited precision. Seductively evoking ‘collegiality, flexibility, collaboration, and scholarly breadth’ (Austin, 1996: 272), the term has sustained its political cachet and asserted an institutionalised imperative (Mitchell, 1995: 541) for decades. At the same time the difficulty in decisively establishing or defining interdisciplinarity underlines the contingent, rather than fixed, and institutionally specific contexts in which specialist areas and disciplines are demarcated (Reese, 1995: 544; Austin, 1996: 272). The idea that interdisciplinarity depends on the reiteration of disciplinary specificity and distinction might nevertheless be perceived as particularly troubling. On the other hand, conceived as ‘boundary dialectic’ (Schmidt, 2011: 253), and the productive capacity of borderlands (Anzaldúa, 1987) suggest that this does not preclude its own opportunities. In addition, reconsidering the categorising and separating lines, or disciplinary configurations with their inclusions and exclusions, has the potential to reveal new, previously impossible to conceive of, subjects (Rancière, 2009: 15-19; Schoenfeld and Traub, 1996: 281).

But to what extent do such ambitions actually correspond to the contexts and practices habitually referred to as interdisciplinary? Individual projects which use frameworks associated with more than one discipline, such as textual analysis drawing on linguistics, semiotics, narratology and genre theory in tandem with philosophy, cultural and critical theory, trauma theory, feminist-, postcolonial- and queer theory and so on, is a prevalent feature of comics scholarship. Media theories and those more readily associated with social sciences offer different sets of possibilities, and historical work might equally draw on multiple theoretical frameworks. As WJT Mitchell (1995: 542) has pointed out, some of these discursive and disciplinary formations have grown from social movements and others organised around theoretical objects, but most are applied in multiple academic contexts, across discipline boundaries. The extent to which this constitutes interdisciplinarity or would be more accurately described as ‘borrowing from another field or extending the domain of a discipline’ (Henkel, 1996: 278) remains open to debate. Methods used for research might equally be derived from a plurality of contexts and be more or less associated with particular disciplines. These kinds of interdisciplinary approaches, whether object-, theory, or method-oriented (Schmidt, 2011: 253-255) are by no means unique to comics studies. The speed at which the term ‘interdisciplinary’ unravels on the other hand, hints at the woolliness of everyday academic jargon.

All the same, the study of comics; as texts, as narrative and meaning making processes, fan communities and production, industrial contexts of production and circulation and more, takes place under the auspices of diverse schools and within multiple theoretical and methodological frameworks . As a consequence, projects with markedly different emphases, ambitions and concerns are regularly juxtaposed with one another at conferences and in journals, to at times surprising and stimulating effect. Yet it would be unfortunate if this remained the extent of the interdisciplinary aspect of comics studies. The theoretical implications are certainly worthwhile pursuing, and there is no reason why individual research cannot achieve such aims to great effect. Moreover, due to its ‘lack of institutional footing’ (Hatfield, 2010: 39) comics studies is well positioned to contribute an acute perspective to broader academic debates around disciplinarity and the normative and prescriptive, yet porous boundaries of such structures. Yet, if the opportunities to pursue the potential of such evident disciplinary diversity are not explored in terms of actual collaborations and research projects, continued references to interdisciplinarity might eventually come to seem overstated.

Comics studies is ideally placed to generate inventive interdisciplinary projects, using networks spanning a broad spectrum of schools and departments and instigating interchange and productivity across still very real boundaries of specialisms, whether in the curriculum planning of comics specific courses or the design of collaborative research projects. A necessary precondition for such undertakings incorporates multiple perspectives and stakeholders. The challenges involve negotiation and communication from the very outset; ‘an ongoing effort to achieve mutual understanding’ (Thompson Klein, 2004: 521), and possibly a ‘preference for both-and over either-or solutions (Robinson, 1996: 278). Not content with asserting the interdisciplinary-ness of the field as an existing state, we might consider it as a possibility and aspiration to be actively pursued, with all the audacity, tenacity and rigorous reflection that it requires. This is not to say that such projects are not already in progress. However, in view of Transitions’ aim to provide a space from which future collaborations might emerge, the potential of developing further intentionally interdisciplinary research projects based around or including comics, may well be worth more thought.

Transitions has been organised according to the time honoured motto of ‘beg, borrow and barter’. So wilfully ignoring that this will read like a gauche awards ceremony speech, I will take the opportunity to extend some due acknowledgements. Birkbeck College has yet again provided accommodation for Transitions, and together with Community University Engagement at University of East Anglia made it possible for us to provide some modest refreshments. Paul Gravett, as the leading light of Comica, has been instrumental in promoting the event, as has the support of Studies in Comics, Comics Forum and Comics Grid. Julia Round and Chris Murray have kindly agreed to travel from their respective ends of the island to deliver the keynote this year, and we owe Roger Sabin thanks for his continued support and interest. Last, but resoundingly not least, I want to thank Karrie Fransman, who generously contributed time, effort, patience and talent to create this year’s poster.


Anzaldúa, G. (1987), Borderlands/ La Frontera: the new mestiza. San Fransisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Austin, T. A., Robinson, L., Robinson, L., Henkel, J., Schoenfield, M. and Traub, V., de Marco Torgovnick, M. (1996), ‘Defining interdisciplinarity’, in PMLA, Vol. 111 (2): 271 – 282.

Hatfield, C. (2010), ‘Indiscipline, or, the condition of comics studies’, Transatlantica 1,

Mitchell, W. J. T. (1995), ‘Interdisciplinarity and visual culture’, in Art Bulletin, 77 (4): 540-544.

Rancière, J. (2009), ‘The aesthetic dimension: aesthetics, politics, knowledge’, in Critical Inquiry, 36 (1): 1-19.

Reese, T. F. (1995), ‘Mapping interdisciplinarity’, in Art Bulletin, 77 (4): 544-549.

Schmidt, J. C. (2011), ‘What is a problem? On problem-oriented interdisciplinarity’, in Poiesis & Praxis, 7: 249-274.

Thompson Klein, J. (2011), ‘Prospects for transdisciplinarity’, in Futures, 36: 515-526.

Venezia, T. (2011), ‘The indisciplined middle space’,

Nina Mickwitz is a PhD candidate at the School of Film, Television and Media at UEA. She has been working together with Hallvard Haug from the English and Humanities department at Birkbeck, and Ed Clough from the School of American Studies at UEA, backed by the consistent and vital support of Tony Venezia, to realise Transitions 3. Her efforts to complete a thesis on comics and documentary will continue with renewed focus after the 3rd of November.

[1] – For a comprehensive and rigorous contribution on the position of comics scholarship and debates on interdisciplinarity, see Charles Hatfield’s (2010) ‘Indiscipline, or, the condition of comics studies’.


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